So, Nelson Cruz. Now what? Another outfielder, apparently. The Mariners have a full outfield on paper, with Michael Saunders in right, Austin Jackson in center, and Dustin Ackley in left. Yet their continued pursuance of another outfielder indicates they aren't quite happy with their current situation. That's a good thing.
I actually like Dustin Ackley's chances going forward, even if he doesn't sustain the torrid pace he displayed in the second half of 2014. He's raised his baseline by becoming an excellent defender, which is a major reason why he still managed 2.1 WAR despite a 97 wRC+. The Mariners can do a lot worse than playing Ackley every day.
But he's just one piece of an outfield that's standing on shaky ground. Though there's no questions about Michael Saunders' talent, injuries have kept him off the field and have also greatly impacted his production. We all love him, but let's be real. He's a question mark. It would be foolish to trade him away for nothing, but is it equally foolish to rely on him as an everyday outfielder with no quality backup plan?
Then there's Austin Jackson, who was worse than both of the aforementioned after becoming a Mariner. There's no way he can be that bad again, right? 51 wRC+? Assuming he'll bounce back seems safe, but...
That's three outfielders who could all put together 3+ win seasons, and three outfielders who could all be replacement level. Now fully on board for a 2015 playoff run, the Mariners have to be more risk-adverse. There's a ton of value in knowing exactly what your worst-case scenario is, and it's part of the reason the Mariners paid big bucks for Nelson Cruz. They couldn't roll into 2015 with another go-around with Kendrys Morales - would he be terrible again? Betting on something more concrete is clearly something the Mariners will value higher this year, and that's standard practice for contenders.
But acquiring another outfielder shouldn't make them trade one of Ackley, Jackson, or Saunders. Logan Morrison is a question mark himself, and guys like Saunders or Cruz could even fill in at 1st base should Morrison crater. The fact is, there's a very good chance that one of the current outfielders will fail, and the Mariners need quality insurance. Not James Jones, not Endy Chavez. One of the reasons the Mariners missed the playoffs was because they didn't have any quality options when outfielders got hurt.
That's why it will be super disappointing if the Mariners use Michael Saunders to acquire their next outfielder or trade for another pitcher. And really, I'm starting to wonder why the Mariners would want to trade for Matt Kemp if Melky Cabrera is somebody who could be coerced into coming to Seattle. That's a big if, clearly. And the sequencing is everything here. The Mariners could be feeling out Kemp while courting Cabrera behind the scenes first. We really don't know. But let's operate under the assumption that they prioritize Kemp over Cabrera for the time being, because that's what has been indicated with our limited look into the mind of the front office.
I get it - Kemp is the white whale, a huge name, right-handed with a strong 2014 second half (.971 OPS), indicating there's still plenty of life left in his bat, maybe even superstar quality. But he's also grossly expensive and carries injury red flags that shoot through the roof, threatening both his playing time and production over the next five years he's signed for $107.5 million. The Mariners wanted to turn him into a DH eventually when they targeted him over the summer, and that's no longer an option with Nelson Cruz plugging things up for four years. Plus, Kemp's quality offensive production is predicated on him staying healthy, and playing right field every day isn't exactly conducive to that. The fit just makes a lot less sense now than it did in July, and I didn't like it then, either.
Assuming that the Mariners don't want to pay Kemp's full salary, and I doubt they can, it seems like they'll have to part with Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, the latter of which has become more objectionable given what we've seen to date. But either way, the Mariners are very likely going to have to add a significant amount of payroll to add Matt Kemp, even if the Dodgers toss in some cash, which makes me wonder - why aren't the Mariners interested in Melky Cabrera?
Cabrera might not be right-handed, but he's a switch-hitter without deficiencies against either side. He's the same age as Kemp (30) and will likely command a contract similar to what the Mariners would hope to get discounted from the Dodgers while giving up Walker or Paxton as a trade-off for money concessions. He's got some red flags of his own, including health and lingering PED clouds, but they're no more glaring than Kemp's set of issues. The Mariners have already tossed away their first round draft pick for Cruz, so the impact of signing another QO player is lower than usual.
Cabrera is pretty much the only outfielder left who could make a major impact for the Mariners while allowing them to be properly prepared for the inevitability that one of their risky outfielders fail. After that, I can understand why they would want to deal for an outfielder. Until then, there's still an outfielder out there that allows the Mariners to hold onto all their biggest chips. If they're willing to add more payroll and can continue holding onto their trade chips, why not do it?
Maybe Melky Cabrera isn't the right guy for them, and that's fine. It's possible he's indicated he won't sign here, and the M's have moved on. The reason I can't fully endorse this move is partially because of a simple lack of knowledge about the situation, and I don't love Melky simply because there's a chance he won't be much of an upgrade. Plus, the M's would ideally like a right fielder, and Melky hasn't played much there -- and Dustin Ackley's noodle arm would be comical in right. It's not an ideal free agent bat, but who is that's left? It's the nature of the beast. The point is, if they're very interested in Kemp, and everything indicates they are, shouldn't they also be interested in Cabrera? Would you take Cabrera + six years of Taijuan Walker or Matt Kemp by himself? It's worth discussing.