Leonys Martin, barring any sort of new devilry, is the 2016 Seattle Mariners starting center fielder. In left field, us here at Lookout Landing, and likely anyone else looking at the current M's roster* sees a natural platoon between Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez. This, unless you believe in Nelson Cruz Right Fielder, leaves an open spot in the outfield, one that needs fixing, and probably won't and shouldn't be handed directly to Boog-ey Lewis and the News. The Seattle Mariners should spend money, maybe even lots of it, to fill that hole with Jason Heyward.
Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing easier than spending someone else's money, but what if spending that other person's cash actually helps them in the long run? Think Jason Segel's character in I Love You Man helping Paul Rudd start up his real estate leads, except now imagine you are watching Real Seattle Mariners Postseason Baseball instead of a movie.
First, let's consider the current state of the payroll and the roster.
Right now, the M's are on the hook for $87.5 million next year, most of which is owed to Cano, Felix, Cruz, Seager, Benoit, and Smith. That number will rise to about $102 million after signing the arbitration guys. The 2017 committed payroll currently sits at around $76 million, then bumps to $84 million in 2018 when Seager's contract escalates, $71 million in 2019 when Cruz comes off the books, and so on. Assuming that Seattle's payroll will be somewhere in the $130-140 million dollar range in 2016 with, roughly, 7% inflation going forward, the M's still have some room to add a big contract.
The Mariners current window of contention is not shut; if anything, it is Jerry Dipoto's job to keep it open for as long as possible while his veritable stars are still, well, stars. Filling the rest of the roster with average and adequate players was a failing of the past regime, but something No Chill Jerry seems quite capable of doing with his early acquisitions to date. He immediately came out to cool any big FA splashes by essentially saying it wasn't part of his plan, but the trade for Benoit certainly demonstrates that he'll absorb payroll. President Joe Mather essentially said that payroll would increase from 2015, so let's take him at his word. Let's say the Mariners open 2016 with a payroll somewhere around $140 million dollars.
Jason Heyward and The Right Field Hole
Let's consider Jason Heyward the Baseball Player before we move on to The Money Pile. Jason Heyward is a rare market commodity, a 26-year-old defensive stalwart with a below-average and ever-improving strikeout rate and massive, here-to-be unlocked, raw power. He's swiped 43 bags with a nifty 86% success rate over the last two years, and he posted 6 WAR in 2015. This sort of well-rounded star does not come around often, and he's well worth forfeiting the 11th pick of the draft and a sizable chunk of the war chest.
The crowd-sourced contract projections at Fangraphs, which are generally pretty accurate, have Heyward signing for eight years and $184 million, for an AAV of $23 million. For simplicity's sake, let's go with their number. That's a big chunk of change, but it's not stratospheric for a player of Heyward's caliber, and if you really want to feel better, take a look at this deep dive on K% and aging curves from Devin Jordan over at Fangraphs. Essentially, over the last 15 years, players with above average strikeout rates age gracefully compared to everyone else. That may sound intuitive, but it's a tangible benefit for a player with Heyward's skills, particularly considering that he's no slap hitter. Steamer projects him to bash 18 homers next year, and anyone who's seen him take BP knows he has a lot more pop in the tank.
Whatever deal Heyward signs, it will be back loaded. Spreading out $184 million over 8 years can be done a million different ways, but let's say we take 4.5% of the average cost off the first three years of the contract and move it to the back end. That puts Heyward at $14.7 million in 2016-2018. Of course, this means that he'd receive over $31 million annually when he's in his 30's, but inflation and increased revenue should mitigate that to some extent. Want better news? Look back at Jordan's piece for the drop-off age on those low-strikeout hitters. The cliff generally comes after the player's age-34 season, which in our model, is the year after his contract with Seattle would expire.
In theory, signing Heyward would elevate the payroll to something like $103 million, leaving plenty of room to find a catcher and some rotation help.
Jason Heyward fills an obvious need and then some. While ownership has already committed to four hefty long-term contracts, the quickest route to regular contention requires another significant financial investment. Combine the gaping hole in right field with room in the payroll for another big splash and Heyward makes sense.
So why not a player like Alex Gordon? Well, first of all, his age. Gordon will be 32 on opening day and will command something like five years and $90 million, which seems a bit high for what he'll offer going forward. He's coming off one of his worst defensive seasons, and while he's been a really good player for years, I'm uncomfortable gambling on the speed and defense skill set with a 32-year-old. It's entirely possible that Gordon's value will be tied to his bat sooner rather than later, and he's not a $90 million player without good defense.
It may seem like a cop-out to off-handedly quip, "The Mariners should sign the best position player available." No shit. The Mariners should spend all the money and never lose again. But this isn't a pipe dream: Heyward is one of the best bats the free agent market has ever seen and the Mariners have enough cash to bring him to Seattle. Imagine an OF that boasts Martin in center, Guti in left, and Heyward in right. You don't even deserve the image but I'll let you have it.
Now stop dreaming and get back to work ya dirty bum.
If Not Heyward?
Seems pretty obvious...
*Subject to Jerry Dipoto level change