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Jack Cust, Mariners Unofficially Reach Contract Agreement

Back in high school, I used to get along really well with my AP Euro teacher. He was a big Orioles fan, and for every test he'd write an extra credit question on the board, and for every extra credit question the answer was 'Brooks Robinson'.

One morning in 2003, I walked into his classroom holding the latest volume of Baseball Prospectus. The Orioles had just picked up Jack Cust for Chris Richard in a trade with the Rockies, and I was excited to show my teacher just what they had gotten. Look at the OBPs over .400! Look at the slugging percentages over .500! Cust was ready to mash, and the Orioles, I told him, had just added a lineup cornerstone.

That was young me, and that was a lot of other people as well. Baseball Prospectus helped bring Cust's impressive minor league hitting numbers to light, and I was all about getting him a shot in the bigs. I wanted him on the Mariners, but failing that, I just wanted him in the Majors. I wanted him to get a chance.

That morning that I held the book in that classroom was seven years ago, and I'd already been on the Cust train for a good long time. Ultimately, he wouldn't get his big break until 2007 with the A's, but by that point I didn't really care anymore. I'd turned my attention elsewhere. Additionally, I'd learned about the importance of things like defense and baserunning, and I'd learned more about guys who mash in AAA. Guys who mash in AAA don't always mash in the Majors.

Cust, though, was indeed able to hit a little bit, and over his four years with the A's, he put up an .839 OPS with 97 home runs. Now, at the age of 31, he's coming to Seattle to fulfill a dream I had in tenth grade. Like a lot of dreams I had in tenth grade, fulfilling this one isn't quite as exciting as I thought it would be.

Cust's coming on a one-year contract with a base salary of about $2.5 million. There will probably be some playing time incentives, as it's otherwise doubtful Cust would've agreed to sign at a pay cut from what he's made in each of the last two seasons. But even with those presumed incentives, he's not going to break the bank. He's signing as a budget DH.

The Mariners aren't confirming the move, but given that they have 39 players on their 40-man roster and the second pick in tomorrow's Rule 5 Draft, that's to be expected. They'll handle the draft first, sort out the roster, and then announce Cust on Friday or Monday or something. He's pretty much a lock.

So, the first order of business is: where's Cust going to play? And I'll tell you where he's not going to play - in the field. Cust was a DH ten years ago and he's even more of a DH today, as I think many of us figured out when we saw him chase after a few fly balls with Oakland. He is not to play defense except on an emergency basis, and the Mariners know that as well as anyone.

Fortunately, as a lefty DH, he still fits a need. While the Mariners have Milton Bradley hanging around, it's important to recognize that Bradley last year was both lousy and injured, and you can't count on him to bounce back. Bradley has now been forced into something of a reserve role. The M's will still look for a righty fourth outfielder, so the way I figure, the most playing time Bradley can hope to get is as a platoon partner with Cust. And that role is limited. Bradley could fill it, but it also wouldn't surprise me if the Mariners dropped him within a few days, deciding that it wasn't worth the volatility. He's a sunk cost.

The second order of business is: how good is Cust? And this answer has changed a bit over the years. Cust was a very solid hitter with Oakland in his first two seasons, and less solid in the last two, having batted .253/.372/.426. The OBP is quite obviously very good, but the power has dropped. 19% of his balls hit in the air went for home runs between 2007-2008. Between 2009-2010, that rate dropped to 11%.

It's important to note that we can't speak to a decrease in Cust's physical strength or bat speed. We can only speak to a decrease in his home run output. He may very well be just as strong as he was a few years ago, meaning the decrease could be tied to a change in approach. Dave Allen looked at this a while back, and Cust has been swinging a little more than he used to.

But, we don't know. We don't know what the root cause is for Cust's power drop. All we know is that the power drop exists, and that we can't just expect him to slug 30 home runs in 2011. We're looking for a slugging percentage closer to .400 than .500.

But that can still be useful - not only because this team lacked home run power last season, but also because Cust's slugging percentage, whatever it may be, will come paired with a lot of walks and a strong OBP. Cust may not bash the ball around the ballpark, but he also won't make a ton of outs, giving the other guys in the lineup plenty of chances to strand a guy on first. And his numbers could be even better if he does indeed end up in something of a platoon.

Cust isn't a sexy addition, and he isn't the stathead favorite that he was at the start of the last decade. He doesn't seem to have the most congenial personality, either (although I could be wrong), so we aren't about to get swamped by a bunch of Cust jerseys and commercials. What he is is a guy who can plod his way to first base and sometimes plod his way around all four. No, he isn't likely to win the Mariners the World Series. But right now I'm more concerned with winning 70 games. To that end, Cust's okay.