Note: there's an update posted at the bottom
A few days ago I made my case that this team isn't that far off from being a contender, and that the organization by no means needs to blow things up and start all over again. In fact, given only a handful of constaints, I found myself content with a surprisingly substantial fraction of the roster being part of a solid team, of which a reminder is shown below:
At the end of the post, I promised a second part to the series, a part where I would demonstrate how to make this team good again with just a handful of simple additions. After talking it over with Graham and Matthew, this is that part.
Before getting started, however, I do want to say that what you're about to read isn't the way to get better. It's - a - way to get better, a way that the three of us have agreed works pretty well without jeopardizing the big picture. But there are countless different ways in which this team could improve. Ways with more trades; ways with different constraints; ways requiring more imagination than we allowed of ourselves. This is but an exercise in creativity to show that the organization isn't in as bad shape as it seems. Nothing more.
So with that out of the way, let's get started. The partial roster I originally listed had holes at SP, 1B, DH, LF, 4th OF, utility IF, bench bat, and bench bat/reliever. Off we go.
The three of us agreed that, if this team wants to compete next year, it needs to make some kind of splash. And when the only decent big-name bats on the market are due to get far too much money, what do you do? You look at the arms. There's not all that much out there, but there is talent, and the talent is more affordable than, say, Mark Texieira is going to be. On which arm did we settle?
AJ Burnett: the idea here is that Burnett will opt out of his contract, negating the final $24m/2yr of his Toronto deal and thereby going back to free agency. It's not a guarantee, but for the time being the odds look pretty good. Why Burnett? Mostly because he's good while his ERA is not. Burnett's a power pitcher who does a reasonable job of keeping the ball on the ground, but his ERA stands at 5.23 despite entering the day with a tRA of 3.96. That's bad for his market value. Even with a regression-happy second half, he'll still be looking at something higher than most pitchers would like to have when they're trying to get paid. I'd offer him a few million more than the Silva contract to come in and form probably the best rotation 1-2-3 in the league. If it's not enough, throw in a little more money. It's going to be an overpay regardless - Burnett is 31 and injury-prone - but this team has the ability to absorb an overpay to a talented player, and the short-term upside is pretty high if you're looking to win in '09/'10.
If Burnett doesn't work out, throw the same sort of money at Ben Sheets. Just do what you can to try and land one of those two without going too many years, because holy crap we'd never allow runs ever.
I hope you liked spending money on the rotation, because we're going bargain basement everywhere else.
Russ Branyan: do I even need to say anything about this? Branyan hasn't collected 300 PAs in a season since 2002 despite a career OPS+ of 110, and after accepting a minor league contract from Milwaukee this year all he's done is lead the minors in OPS and then come up and slug .636 through 99 at bats. He's not a great player, but he's always available, he's always cheap, and he's always productive, and as a left-handed mammoth he could make sure the people in the Hit It Here Cafe are a wee bit more skittish. So he strikes out all the time. Who cares? At the end of the day, you just want a guy who can produce a little bit, and Branyan's been producing for as long as he's been a big leaguer.
In the unlikely event that Branyan becomes untouchable, there's always Big Ben Broussard!
Raul Ibanez: because why not? I didn't really think about it while writing the original 2009 post, but after talking it over, it makes all kinds of sense.
The 08/09 free agency crop is pretty underwhelming, but there's one player in there who could prove to be the new Jose Guillen. A guy with the potential to go straight from the scrap heap to the middle of the order.
Juan Rivera: two years ago, a 27 year old Rivera reached a new level by posting a 126 OPS+ as a regular outfielder in LAnaheim. It was the peak of a 3.5-season period of time over which he slugged .482 with the ability to hit for average and put the ball in play. That winter, he broke his leg. Due to the injury, Rivera's 2007 was a complete and utter washout, and as part of an overstaffed Angel outfield in 2008, he's struggled to produce while getting limited and irregular playing time. Having just turned 30 a week ago, though, it's not like the ability is gone, and Rivera has the potential to re-establish himself as a legitimate run-producing corner outfielder should he be given the opportunity. I would like this to be the team that gives him such an opportunity. He's not exactly a Gold Glover, but he appears to be worth something like -10 < x < 0 in the field, which is good enough not to take much away from his offensive contributions. Juan Rivera could end up being a great, great deal. And I love a great deal.
In a fourth outfielder, you typically want someone capable of playing all three positions without embarrassing himself. In our case, we also wanted to find a guy who could step in as the everyday center fielder for at least a little bit in the event that Reed completely sucks. I settled on two candidates.
Endy Chavez: Endy Chavez isn't much of a hitter. At the plate, he's...he's a lot like Jeremy Reed, really. But the man has great legs and one hell of a glove, a plus CF who may very well belong to a pretty exclusive group of defensive wizards. Undervalued.
Jason Michaels: he'll be on the market should the Pirates decline his option. What he brings is more bat and less glove than Endy Chavez. Capable of hitting lefties a little bit when you want to give Ibanez or Branyan a day off. Not afraid to take a walk. Fourth outfielder to a tee.
We're getting into the boring, relatively irrelevant part of the post, so I'll limit myself to just a few words.
Adam Everett: duh. Great glove. Great, great glove. Can't hit for beans. A defense-first shortstop who can actually play defense.
Alex Cora: like Michaels above, Cora brings a little more bat and a little less glove than Everett.
We went looking for a righty who could spell/pinch-hit for Ibanez or Branyan.
Morgan Ensberg: hasn't become what he could've been, but the man can still punish the occasional lefty, as his career OPS against southpaws is .912. If for some reason Ensberg isn't available, you can just settle for
Generic AAAA Fan Favorite: what's that? You need to find someone capable of putting up a .760-.800 OPS against left-handed pitchers? I've got bad news for you. There are only like 2340892342093 of those available all the time for absolutely nothing.
This one we didn't really think out. Initially I gave us a seven-man bullpen with the last spot going to someone like Cesar Jimenez or Eric O'Flaherty or Josh Fields or whoever, but seven-man bullpens are stupid, so you could just as easily give this roster spot to another set of legs or really whatever you want. If it's RRS who takes that fifth rotation spot instead of Morrow or Dickey, though, then you should probably give this to a lefty reliever.
So here's what the filled-out roster looks like. Feel free to swap Chavez with Michaels, Everett with Cora, Ensberg with anything, and (Tacoma) with anything. Also Burnett/Sheets, Branyan/Broussard, and...yeah. Anyway:
There you go. There's your contending 2009 Seattle Mariners. The offense isn't spectacular, and the defense is only okay, but the pitching staff is a strength and capable of taking this team a long way. The best part? The whole unit would actually cost about $10m less than the current variety. I set it up like this for a reason - it leaves room for Washburn to take the #5 slot if he doesn't get traded, in which case you probably jettison Dickey since there's no reason to have both him and Batista in the same bullpen. But if Washburn really is gone, then that leaves you the flexibility to make another splash by free agency or trade (or to just make the owners happy). I won't go into that, though, since I'm comfortable with what we already have.
That's a pretty good team. It's not the best team in baseball, but it should be a contender, and the only thing it costs the future is a little money for AJ Burnett (or Sheets). In other words, there's minimal sacrifice. And that's the whole point of this little series of articles. Yeah, the Mariners could blow things up if they wanted to. They wouldn't be the first team to do it, and the whole process would actually be pretty exciting. But blowing things up and starting from scratch is unnecessary when you have this kind of money and this kind of foundation. Why tear down when you can build for the future and play for the present at the same time? That's the beauty of the whole thing. Given a choice between trying to win and blowing things up, the Mariners don't have to choose. They can do both.
And they should do both.
UPDATE: so I've learned two things: (1) Endy Chavez isn't a free agent this year like Cot's says he is, and (2) Wlad's out of options, which for some reason I forgot about. So here's my new solution:
Fourth OF: Wlad. Spells Ibanez from time to time, plays for Rivera ~2-3 times a week
Fifth OF: any moron who runs fast enough to play center
Seventh Reliever: gone. It turns into a six-man bullpen. If Morrow or Dickey take the #5 slot, RRS is your lefty, but in the event that RRS takes the #5 slot, you're either without a lefty, or you have to ditch Dickey to add one. Dumping Batista would be nice, but that's a lot of money to eat.