The 2014 Lookout Landing off-season plan

Jake Gravbrot Photography

From start to finish, here are the moves that point the Seattle Mariners in the right direction for 2014 and beyond.

In 2012 the Boston Red Sox finished in the AL East cellar; a year later, they were the best team in baseball. While the Mariners are hardly in line for a similar turnaround, it shows that optimism is possible in an off-season that badly needs it. In this, the latest in a string of make-or-break seasons, it's crucial that the Mariners take a step forward. Their nucleus, for good or for ill, is in place. But an improved supporting cast is necessary for the team to move forward. What follows is the strategy that gives the team their best chance of success.

Coming up with an off-season plan is a challenge - it's difficult to combine idealism with realism and fit it under a rational budget. The Mariners have plenty of young potential, but with those players come a series of question marks. Our plan will allow the Mariners to take a significant step forward in 2014 without gutting their young talent or skyrocketing payroll. It's a high upside plan that allows visions of the Mariners contending once again.

The transactions

The rationale

The off-season begins with acquiring Japanese star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, whom we determined to be the best overall value of the "big splash" options. If you count the posting fee and contract from the same pool of money, he's likely to cost a similar amount to what Jacoby Ellsbury might command in free agency. The risk of giving that kind of contract to a pitcher from another professional league is offset by his age (25), and this is a rare opportunity to secure a free agent through his prime years. Though there will be many suitors for Tanaka, the Mariners have a chance to lay low and strike with an aggressive bid for his services, blowing away the previous record fee for Yu Darvish ($51.7 million). Tanaka gives the Mariners a potentially incredible one-two punch for the foreseeable future, and while it's an expensive proposition, his low annual salary relative to other marquee pitchers makes him a more tradeable asset if there's a need down the road. Tanaka is a better, younger, and more durable version of Hisashi Iwakuma, his former Rakuten teammate. With Felix and Hisashi, Tanaka gives the Mariners as fearsome a starting three as any in the league.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Koji Watanabe

After the Tanaka splash comes the major trade, acquiring Austin Jackson and Rick Porcello from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Nick Franklin, Michael Saunders, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Tyler Pike. The Mariners have two second basemen, and one should be traded to fill another hole. Despite the fact that the two project similarly going forward, it's clear which one has more trade value. The Tigers are faced with losing two infielders (Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante), and Franklin replaces one of them at little cost. This helps the Tigers free up salary to re-sign Max Scherzer after 2013. Michael Saunders replaces Austin Jackson, resulting in a certain downgrade for Detroit but preventing them from having a complete black hole in the outfield. Detroit's 2013 closer, Joaquin Benoit, is a free agent. Adding Wilhelmsen gives them an option to replace him, and even though his value is not what it was six months ago, he still carries some weight. Tyler Pike is a high-upside starting pitcher who's likely to be ranked #3 or #4 on the next organizational top prospects list - certainly an attractive piece for an organization as prospect-starved as Detroit.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Leon Halip

The trade allows Ackley to move back to second base where he belongs, while Porcello slots into the back of the rotation, where he may finally be able to perform up to his peripherals with a new defense behind him. He's coming off his best season ever, posting a 4.32 ERA that was considerably higher than his 3.19 xFIP. Porcello's SIERA was also fantastic, coming in at 3.39. Still only 24, Porcello may have finally figured things out, and the results are just lagging one year behind. It's a great opportunity to buy low before the window slams shut. Only 12 qualified pitchers had a lower xFIP than Porcello in 2013, and the same goes for his SIERA. If Porcello does indeed break out, the Mariners have a chance to have a truly elite pitching staff from top to bottom.

Trading Franklin means relying on Dustin Ackley for 2014, and that's a dicey proposition. While Ackley looked almost fixed at times in the second half of 2013, he's far from a lock. It's risky, but on the other hand it's not any more risky than assuming Franklin is going to bounce back or take a step forward. That's where Kelly Johnson comes in, though we'll get to that later.

The Mariners have a desperate need for outfielders, and Peter Bourjos fits the bill. The Angels are rumored to be shopping him, and he can immediately step in and patrol center field. Bourjos is 26, an elite defender, and has been lost in the Angels outfield for the past two seasons. In 2011, Bourjos was a 4 win player while playing full time. In 2012, Bourjos was worth 2 wins, despite being limited to 195 PA, as he was often used as a defensive replacement. Still in his prime, Bourjos is an undervalued trade target thanks to his injuries and sporadic playing time.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Al Messerschmidt

The Angels are rumored to be looking for pitching in exchange for Bourjos, and Erasmo Ramirez and Yoervis Medina fit the bill. Ramirez can be a rotation candidate for the Angels, or be a swing man in the bullpen. Medina is coming off a promising rookie season, is cheap and under club control for 5 more years, and helps a poor Angels bullpen. Even though Bourjos is without a real role on the Angels, those two pieces might not be enough to get a deal done, which is why high-risk, high-upside pitching prospect Edwin Diaz is included to help complete the deal. Still, it's a swap that makes sense for both teams, each trading surplus for need.

The next trade target is Lucas Duda, who could probably be had in exchange for Julio Morban and Steven Proscia. Duda has had an up and down career with the Mets, actually performing as a below replacement level player for his career. This is largely due to his struggles with left-handed pitching and his brutal defense in the outfield. The Mets are faced with choosing one of Ike Davis and Lucas Duda going forward, and considering the Davis's better pedigree and bigger contract, Duda seems the more reasonable target. "The Dude" does one thing really well, and that's crush right-handed pitching. He sports a career 127 wRC+ against righties, including a 135+ mark in 2013. He'll be 28 by the time the season starts and will be arbitration eligible as a Super Two player, estimated at $1.8 million. Morban gives the Mets a toolsy outfielder with some injury concerns, and Proscia's a nice organizational player: not a bad return for a 1B who's been replacement level for his career. Regardless of the package, Duda shouldn't be too expensive to acquire, and he'll make up the left-hand side of a 1B/DH platoon.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sticking with 1B/DH, the Mariners should lure Corey Hart, who was originally drafted by Jack Zduriencik, away from Milwaukee with a multi-year deal. Hart missed the entire 2013 season with knee injuries, and simply can't be relied on to play in the outfield anymore. On the other hand, Hart is right-handed, doesn't post severe splits, and was a productive hitter through his age 30 season, posting a 124 wRC+. Hart will now be 32 and is coming off two injuries, so this move isn't without risk. The Mariners can compensate by restricting him to primarily DH, which in turn closes the door on two other Mariners, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales.

Signing Hart is contingent on a few things happening. One, the Mariners extend Morales a qualifying offer, which they fully intend to do. Two, Morales declines that qualifying offer to test the market, which is what has been speculated. If Morales accepts the offer, he's your guy instead of Hart. If he doesn't, the Mariners can take the draft pick compensation and thank him for his service rather than overpaying to get him back. Morales will remain an option if Hart signs elsewhere, as his attached qualifying offer tag shouldn't have teams running to sign him. There's a good chance Morales will still be available as a fall-back option for this spot, though he won't be as cheap.

Bringing in Lucas Duda to start most games at first base means there isn't much room for Justin Smoak. It's time to move on. The Orioles have been connected to Smoak for a while, dating back to last off-season. The other half of the Chris Davis 1B/DH picture is muddled at best. Smoak provides the Orioles with an affordable option at 1B/DH, and could allow Chris Davis to shift to designated hitter. In exchange, the Orioles give Seattle Brian Matusz, a former bust who finally found consistent success as a reliever. Matusz is a Super Two player and enters his second year of arbitration this off-season, but he's controlled for three more years. It's a swap of busts, but at least it helps to bolster the Seattle bullpen.

20130515_ter_sv7_838USA TODAY Sports

Assuming Hart is going to start close to every day and Duda will start against all righties, there's a need for a hitter who mashes lefties. Here's where the Mariners can go dumpster diving, turning their attention to Brock Peterson and Mauro Gomez. Peterson is a first baseman who played briefly with the Cardinals in 2013, his only major league stint to date. He'll be 30 years old, has spent 11 years in the minors, and clearly has no future in St. Louis and should be readily available. Peterson posted a .313/.367/.582 line in AAA against lefties in 2013. The other bargain bin option is Mauro Gomez, another career minor leaguer who saw a handful of games with Boston in 2013. Gomez is 29, plays primarily first base, and hits lefties about as well as Peterson, having posted an absurdly high-power line of .269/.333/.620 in 2013. This position doesn't have to be filled with these two specific players - it's merely a suggestion for the type of player the Mariners look to audition for this spot, someone whose price will be tempered by unimportant limitations. The Mariners can go grab a few of them and bring them to camp to complete with Ty Kelly and Stefen Romero, who are both reasonable in-house candidates for this role. Somebody will rise to the top.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat

There are still holes in the outfield after the Jackson trade, since Saunders was part of the cost to acquire him, and the Mariners will almost certainly not exercise Franklin Gutierrez's option. The Mariners need somebody to replace that production, so to the free agent market we go, and out comes 32-year old 2B/OF Kelly Johnson on a 1 year, $3 million deal. Johnson posted a 101 wRC+ in 118 games for the Rays last year, totaling 1.2 WAR. Johnson has issues: he strikes out a ton, and he doesn't hit for average. But he also has strengths, and one of them is that he also acts as Dustin Ackley insurance. Johnson is an adequate defender at second base and gives the Mariners flexibility, all while costing less than the other reasonable free agent corner outfield option, Nate McLouth.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Though the primary goal is to see the Mariners win in 2014, the team also has to look beyond. That's why Mike Zunino should begin the year in Tacoma, getting the development he desperately needs. Meanwhile, the Mariners need another catcher. That's where Geovany Soto comes in, fresh off a backup role with the Rangers in 2013 in which he posted a 114 wRC+. The former Rookie of the Year will be looking for a starting job once again, and the Mariners can offer it to him. It wasn't that long ago that Soto was a 2 or 3 win player, and it gives the Mariners options. If and when Mike Zunino beats down the door, Soto will be an easy asset to trade or he can slide into a part-time role, filling the lefty-mashing DH role we've previously assigned to the dumpster dive while Sucre remains in the backup catcher spot. Soto and the Mariners are a perfect match.

The Mariners shouldn't let Oliver Perez walk out the door. One of the first priorities should be locking him up to a multi-year deal, which will cost an estimated 2 years, $6 million. His rough second half helped bring his market value back to a more reasonable cost, and the Mariners can't afford to take any more steps back in the bullpen if they're trading away other relievers to acquire bats. They should've traded Perez at midseason last year; a re-signing will give them a solid left-handed reliever for the next two years and a chance to rectify that mistake.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel

Even with Masahiro Tanaka, the Mariners still have uncertainty at the back end of the rotation. While it's optimistic to envision a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Tanaka, Rick Porcello, and James Paxton or Taijuan Walker, there's a chance those guys don't break camp with the team. Enter Scott Baker, who has finally returned from a disastrous two injury-plagued years to make three starts with the Cubs. Though Baker was paid $5.5 million with Chicago, he won't approach that again, and the Mariners have a chance to buy low on Baker while offering him performance incentives based on innings pitched. Before the injuries, Baker was a consistent 2-3 win pitcher with Minnesota, and while he's far from a pitcher the Mariners can rely on, his acquisition is a luxury lottery chip that could pay off. With the addition of Porcello, it's a stretch to pencil in Baker into the rotation ahead of both Walker and Paxton, but it gives the Mariners options. Baker is a reasonable long man in the bullpen as a guy who throws a ton of strikes. He can shift there as early as the Mariners want him to, but Baker represents an insurance plan who could still pay off on his own if given the opportunity. A one-year, $1.5 million deal with incentives up to $4 million should get it done.

20130515_ter_sv7_838Photo credit: Otto Greule Jr

Finally, there's a need for another shortstop off the bench. After much debate, discussed veered toward none other than Brendan Ryan, who shouldn't command more than a bench role and $1.5 million after his brutal season at the plate. Everyone loves Ryan, he's the ideal defensive replacement and pinch runner, and the Mariners could do a whole lot worse at the end of their bench.

Because the Mariners are relying on a mostly similar bullpen to last year, they should pass along some spring training invites to a batch of relievers. This group is made up of two pitchers who had a some degree of success and then had a miserable year in former Mariner Mark Lowe and former bullpen workhorse Shawn Camp. Both Lowe and Camp have seen their velocity decrease, especially Camp, who averaged just 86 mph last year while getting shelled. Still, there's no risk to asking these guys to come show what they've got left. The other invite goes to Ryan Rowland-Smith, who had a fantastic season in Pawtucket last year, and while his ERA vastly outperformed his peripherals, those were excellent as well. He seems to have figured something out, and if he doesn't secure a major league deal elsewhere, he's expressed interest in returning back to Seattle.

Opening day roster

C Geovany Soto
C Jesus Sucre
1B Lucas Duda
1B Corey Hart
1B Brock Peterson
2B Dustin Ackley
SS Brad Miller
SS Brendan Ryan
3B Kyle Seager
LF Kelly Johnson
LF/CF Peter Bourjos
CF/RF Austin Jackson
OF Abraham Almonte

SP Felix Hernandez
SP Masahiro Tanaka
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
SP Rick Porcello
SP Taijuan Walker
RP Oliver Perez
RP Charlie Furbush
RP Stephen Pryor
RP Carson Smith
RP Brian Matusz
RP Scott Baker
CL Danny Farquhar

Most of this plan is centered around acquiring Tanaka, but even if the Mariners miss out on him, many of these moves still work. If Tanaka doesn't work out, the Mariners could substitute Jacoby Ellsbury and a mid-level starter like Dan Haren for Tanaka and Johnson. The final payroll impact should be similar, and an outfield defense of Bourjos, Ellsbury, and Jackson would be the league's best.

The rotation doesn't involve James Paxton, who will start the year in AAA. There's a good chance he'd force his way onto this roster anyways, and if/when Scott Baker gets hurt, Paxton could fill a Drew Smyly-type role for this bullpen. Mike Zunino will come up eventually, and Soto will slide into the right-handed part of the DH platoon. Carson Smith is currently projected to beat out Carter Capps for the final bullpen spot.

Payroll

Position Name Salary Position Name Salary
C Geovany Soto $4,000,000 SP1 Felix Hernandez $22,000,000
1B Lucas Duda $1,800,000 SP2 Hisashi Iwakuma $6,500,000
2B Dustin Ackley $1,500,000 SP3 Masahiro Tanaka $8,000,000
3B Kyle Seager $500,000 SP4 Rick Porcello $7,000,000
SS Brad Miller $500,000 SP5 Taijuan Walker $500,000
LF/CF Peter Bourjos $1,100,000
CF/RF Austin Jackson $5,250,000 CL Danny Farquhar $500,000
LF Kelly Johnson $3,000,000 RH Stephen Pryor $500,000
DH Corey Hart $8,000,000 LH Charlie Furbush $500,000
RH Brian Matusz $2,100,000
Bench C Jesus Sucre $500,000 RH Carson Smith $500,000
Bench IF Brendan Ryan $1,500,000 LH Oliver Perez $3,000,000
Bench OF Abe Almonte $500,000 Swing Scott Baker $4,000,000
Bench 1B Brock Peterson $500,000 AAA Danny Hultzen $1,500,000
$28,650,000 $56,600,000
Total Salary: $85,250,000

Tanaka's contract will almost certainly be backloaded given the massive fee absorbed up front. While his posting fee isn't listed under the payroll, that's clearly an extra consideration, and if it's spread out evenly over the life of the contract, that brings the 2014 estimated payroll to $96.25 million. We've used MLBTR estimates for arbitration figures except for Porcello and Jackson, for whom we borrowed estimates from SBN Tigers blog Bless You Boys.

A payroll of $96 million would be a significant leap up from the $73.5 million of a year ago. However, that figure would still place the team firmly in the middle of the pack; fourteen clubs spent more last season, and everyone else's numbers will surely go up as well.

Lineups

vs RHP Name Pos vs LHP Name Pos
1 Austin Jackson RF 1 Austin Jackson CF
2 Brad Miller SS 2 Peter Bourjos LF
3 Kyle Seager 3B 3 Kyle Seager 3B
4 Lucas Duda 1B 4 Corey Hart 1B
5 Corey Hart DH 5 Brock Peterson DH
6 Kelly Johnson LF 6 Geovany Soto C
7 Peter Bourjos CF 7 Abe Almonte RF
8 Dustin Ackley 2B 8 Brad Miller SS
9 Geovany Soto C 9 Dustin Ackley 2B

The lineups will be platooned, though not heavily. Against lefties, Brock Peterson (or whatever right-handed slugger rises to the top) will start over Lucas Duda and Kelly Johnson will sit for Abraham Almonte. Everyone else is an everyday player, though there will be some lineup shuffling depending on the opposing pitcher's handedness.

The production

Steamer (modified) projections:

Position Name Steamer
Position Name Steamer
C Geovany Soto 1.0
SP1 Felix Hernandez 4.4
1B Lucas Duda 1.5
SP2 Hisashi Iwakuma 3.2
2B Dustin Ackley 2.0
SP3 Masahiro Tanaka 3.2
3B Kyle Seager 2.6
SP4 Rick Porcello 2.7
SS Brad Miller 2.9
SP5 Taijuan Walker 0.8
RF Kelly Johnson 1.3



CF Austin Jackson 3.8
CL Danny Farquhar 0.7
LF Peter Bourjos 3.0
RH Stephen Pryor 0.2
DH Corey Hart 1.4
LH Charlie Furbush 0.5




RH Brian Matusz 0.2
Bench C Jesus Sucre 0.0
RH Carson Smith 0.0
Bench IF Brendan Ryan 0.0
LH Oliver Perez 0.2
Bench OF Abe Almonte 0.0
Swing Scott Baker 0.4
Bench 1B Brock Peterson 0.0
16.5


19.5








Projected win total:
83.7





Total WAR 36.0

There's a few things to note with these modified Steamer projections.

  • Tanaka doesn't have a Steamer projection, so he's assigned the same as Iwakuma's projection to be safe. This is pretty conservative.
  • Steamer thinks Dustin Ackley is going to play center field again next year; under this plan he won't. We modified the projection to shift him back to 2B, where we have him maintaining his track record of good glovework.
  • Steamer thinks Felix, Iwakuma, Seager, and Farquhar are going to regress by 1.6, 1, .5, and 1.2 WAR respectively. It also thinks that Walker is a 0.8 WAR SP. This is beyond conservative.
  • Steamer projects Peter Bourjos for 1 PA, because he ended the season hurt. We generated a projection for him by prorating Steamer's offensive estimate out to 600 PA.
  • Stephen Pryor, too, is projected for just 1 IP thanks to a season-ending injury. That's been prorated out to a full year.
  • Steamer also knocks Corey Hart in terms of games played thanks to his missed 2013. That's been left alone, because there are some valid concerns there.

There are plenty of conservative estimates here likely to be eclipsed. Felix Hernandez hasn't had a WAR below 4.7 since 2008, and Steamer dinged him for missing time this year. The system also predicts heavy regression from Hisashi Iwakuma and Kyle Seager, for one reason or another. Despite Steamer's generally acknowledged status as one of the more optimistic projection systems, we feel that on a whole these projections lowball our Mariners' true talent level.

Best case scenario:

Here's what it looks like if everything goes right.

Position Name UP WAR Position Name UP WAR
C Geovany Soto 2.2 SP1 Felix Hernandez 6.0
1B Lucas Duda 2.0 SP2 Hisashi Iwakuma 4.2
2B Dustin Ackley 3.6 SP3 Masahiro Tanaka 4.9
3B Kyle Seager 3.6 SP4 Rick Porcello 3.2
SS Brad Miller 3.6 SP5 Taijuan Walker 4.2
RF Kelly Johnson 1.8
CF Austin Jackson 5.2 CL Danny Farquhar 1.0
LF Peter Bourjos 4.2 RH Stephen Pryor 1.0
DH Corey Hart 3.0 LH Charlie Furbush 1.0
RH Brian Matusz 1.0
Bench C Jesus Sucre 1.0 RH Carson Smith 1.0
Bench IF Brendan Ryan 1.0 LH Oliver Perez 1.0
Bench OF Abe Almonte 1.0 Swing Scott Baker 1.0
Bench 1B Brock Peterson 1.0 29.5
33.2
Projected win total: 110.4
Total WAR 62.7

This team has tremendous upside, despite a sub-par bench and mediocre bullpen. This projects what every player could do if they performed to their peak and stayed healthy. WAR estimates were generated by assuming each player would exactly replicate the best year he's had in the last three seasons (for rookies and young players, estimates based on other recent rookies and prorated past seasons were made, and bench players and relievers were capped to 1 WAR.) This spreadsheet doesn't include the likely promotions of Mike Zunino and James Paxton.

Currently, it's thought that a replacement-level team would win 47.7 games. Taking that figure and adding this "upside" of 62.7 WAR would give the Mariners 110.4 wins. That won't happen, but it's fun to type.

Worst case scenario:

So what happens if everything goes wrong?

Position Name DOWN WAR Position Name DOWN WAR
C Geovany Soto 0.3 SP1 Felix Hernandez 4.7
1B Lucas Duda 0.0 SP2 Hisashi Iwakuma 2.0
2B Dustin Ackley 0.0 SP3 Masahiro Tanaka 1.0
3B Kyle Seager 2.6 SP4 Rick Porcello 2.6
SS Brad Miller 1.0 SP5 Taijuan Walker 0.0
RF Kelly Johnson 0.4
CF Austin Jackson 2.4 CL Danny Farquhar 0.0
LF Peter Bourjos 1.1 RH Stephen Pryor 0.0
DH Corey Hart 1.2 LH Charlie Furbush 0.0
RH Brian Matusz 0.0
Bench C Jesus Sucre -0.5 RH Carson Smith 0.0
Bench IF Brendan Ryan -0.5 LH Oliver Perez 0.0
Bench OF Abe Almonte -0.5 Swing Scott Baker 0.0
Bench 1B Brock Peterson -0.5 10.3
7.0
Projected win total: 65.0
Total WAR 17.3

It isn't pretty. Instead of matching previous highs or taking steps forward, everyone could tank. Jackson could decline again, Hart could be ineffective and limited by injuries, Walker could get shelled, and Tanaka could be a bust. Players will be hurt. There's a ton of volatility to this roster, and for as big as the upside is, the downside is just as enormous. The worst-case scenario places this roster at 65 wins. That's not going to happen, either, but it's sobering to consider.

Conclusion

This team has more talent than the modified Steamer win projection suggests. The average of our best-case and worst-case scenarios is 88 wins. Health will be a huge factor, as well as the performances of all the young talent. It's the ultimate "go big or go home" plan. This is an exciting team with tremendous upside that also carries a great deal of risk, though the risk is mostly short-term, not long. They could crash as easily as they could soar, but building a contender without a massive spike in payroll requires some gambling. Still, short-term veteran deals like the ones given to Soto and Johnson reduce long-term risk and provide the Mariners with plenty of flexibility to reload next year if necessary.

There are concerns about about outfield depth and a thin bullpen, and there aren't a lot of fallback options if hitters start getting hurt. At the same time, the rotation is deep and full of internal replacements. The veterans should provide enough of both talent and grit to make everyone happy, and come off the books just in time to extend those young players who fulfill their potential. This team is more than capable of finishing above .500, and could even make the playoffs with a few breaks. By implementing this plan, the Mariners could make themselves relevant again for 2014 and beyond.

Thanks for reading. Share your thoughts below! I couldn't have put this together without the immense help of my staff: many thanks to Matt Ellis for his brainstorming expertise, Logan Davis for his tedious work on projection tables, and Patrick Dubuque for his keen editing eye. Each one of them spent hours upon hours working with me to put this team together.

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