Saturday, October 30, 2004

To continue a trend on this blog over the last month, it’s time once again to breakdown Bob Finnigan’s recent heaping pile of trash, “M’s Caught in Number Crunch”.


While it seems many were pleased at the comeuppance of the Yankees, the postseason failure of the New York club and the humiliation that does not sit well with owner George Steinbrenner could be costly for other clubs during free agency.
So the Yankees are going to bidding on every free agent in this year’s market? Interesting. While the Yankees promise to be one of the more active clubs this off-season, which they are every year, the simple fact that they are going to be looking at free agents will not drive up the price of free agents, at least not directly. Most believe that Beltran will be a Yankee and teams in the market for a centerfielder have already made contingency plans. The Yankees need pitching and are expected to make a push for Randy Johnson and will likely retain Lieber, leaving one spot in the rotation and a hole or two in the bullpen. This off-season won’t be any different than last year, or the year before that. The Yankees will not single handedly drive up the price of all the free agents in baseball.



The Yankees are not likely to sit and hope that an unhealthy Jason Giambi will be back at first base, that Miguel Cairo will do at second or aging Bernie Williams in center field. And there is no chance Steinbrenner will try to go again with iffy pitching.

So Steinbrenner has a magic wand that he can wave and can magically make horrendous contracts disappear? Giambi, a.k.a The Albatross, has $82 million left on his contract with the Yankees. Williams is owed $12.0 for the next year with a $15 million contract or $3.5 million buy-out in 2006. No one, I repeat, no one will be trading for these contracts unless the Yanks pay for substantial portions of the remaining money owed. One of these two players will be the Yankees DH next year and the other will be in the field. They have no choice but sit and hope that Giambi can return and that Williams will age slower. The Yankees will add pitching, but with Brown, Mussina and Vazquez guaranteed spots and more than likely Lieber, they only have room for one starting pitcher. But they will be active in the trade market.



Thus, for any team in the market for a front-line free agent, the price probably went up last week as New York went down. In fact, the Yankees' demise, as a single overwhelming factor, might reverse the recent trend of lower salaries for free agents.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The Yankees were active in the free agent market last season signing Sheffield, Gordon, Quantrill, Lofton, and Lee to free agent deals and were involved in the Guerrero talks. The Yanks made their splash via trades last season, adding Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez (then grossly overpaid him) and eventually A-Rod. Salaries grew exponentially last season, despite the Yankees getting embarrassed by the Florida Marlins in the World Series.



Seattle, with CEO Howard Lincoln predicting only that player-salary expenditures are projected to make the club lose money for the first time in years, will be in the market.

But how big a player the Mariners will be depends on the cost.
Seriously, is Finnigan on the take from the Seattle brass? Can he understand basic accounting procedures? Better yet, can he balance his own check book? The M’s will not lose money next year, Lincoln won’t let it happen. The team can increase their payroll by 25% next season and they wouldn’t even bat an eye. But they won’t. They like their pockets lined with money, especially money with Ben Franklin’s mug shot.



The Mariners have 10 players under contract for $57.5 million, plus $6 million going to departed players (Jeff Cirillo, Kevin Jarvis, Wiki Gonzalez) and funds set aside in the amounts of $2 million for contingencies and $3.5 million for prorated signing bonuses.

That leaves about $25 million to spend on 15 players.
By my count, the M’s have $55.43 million spent on 11 players (which includes Wiki Gonzalez) for next season. The M’s will not pick-up Eddie’s $6 million team option but he will almost certainly pick up his player option at $4.5 million. They owe the Padres $4.75 million to complete the Cirillo trade. Add in the $5.5 million in contingencies and signing bonuses, the M’s have spent $65.68 million of next years supposed $94 million roster budget, a difference of $28.32 million.



A handful of veterans, including free agents Dan Wilson and Ron Villone, whom the Mariners want back, will cost about $10 million. A small group of young players making just more than the minimum of around $350,000 will cost the Mariners another $2 million.

That comes to $81 million, leaving about $13 million for free agents — unless Seattle chooses to trade to free up some money, with Bret Boone being an unlikely possibility.
The five second year players (approx. $350, 000) Finnigan is implying will be on the 2005 roster are Bucky, Sherrill, Putz, Maddy, and Lopez. Plus, Olivo is in his third year (approx. $400,000) and it will be Reed’s first season ($300,000). Combined they should take up $2.45 million. Cabrera is also expected to be back, so that is another $1.5 million. Factor in a raise for Meche, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million and that’s $6.95 million for the remaining nine players who are all but guaranteed to be a part of next year’s roster, barring an injury or trade. So that leaves Wilson and Villone. Wilson shouldn’t be tendered a contract for any more than $1 million, but we’ll say $1.5 million just to be safe. If Bavasi will remember that he signed Villone off the scrap heap late last off-season, he would be wise to go bargain shopping again this off-season and let someone else pay for his services. Maybe I am na├»ve, but I do not see Villone as a Mariner in 2005, but for arguments sake, let’s say he gets awarded a $2 million contract for being left handed. Tally that all up, that’s $10.45 million for ten players, added to the previous total, gives you $74.63 million spent on 21 players, (Wiki won’t be on the ML roster, so he wasn’t included in the player tally, but his salary was). Which leaves the M’s $17.87 million to spend on four free agents or minor leaguers, (say Mateo, or god forbid Bloomquist).



That comes to $81 million, leaving about $13 million for free agents — unless Seattle chooses to trade to free up some money, with Bret Boone being an unlikely possibility.
With the Yankees possibly looking for a second baseman to fit into their galaxy of a lineup, they could have interest in Boone. But if they or anyone take Boone's $9.25 million contract, Seattle will pay a chunk of it, figure at least half, and make room for Jose Lopez to play second.
It’s actually about $18 million for free agents. I partially agree with Finnigan on the fact that they should at least gauge the interest the Yankees might have in Boone, but the M’s shouldn’t have to pay a dime of Boone’s salary. I’m still intrigued by the enigma known as Javier Vazquez, but the Yanks would have to pay for a sizeable amount of the remaining balance on his contract. Maybe we could con them into taking Shiggy and Speizio to help balance out the salaries. But back to the main point, the M’s will trade players this off-season. Randy Winn is almost guaranteed to be playing for another team next year. Raul Ibanez has a chance of being dealt. The M’s may decide that they aren’t comfortable paying Meche more than $3 million next season and deal him. If they can find a taker for Shiggy, Spiezio or Franklin, they will be dealt away as well.



But there are two intriguing rationales to keep Boone. First, he had Lasik surgery on his eyes and said last week, "It's already making a world of difference in my vision."
Second, there is his pride. Boone is sure to be driven to make up for this past season, when he neither hit nor produced runs as usual.
First off, Aurilia had similar surgery this past off-season, it didn’t help. It is also understandable that Boone’s pride may be hurt and he may be driven to try to post better numbers this season. But the Bret Boone we saw last season was the Bret Boone we signed in 2001, not the statistical anomaly that he was in his first two and a half years with the club. Before his arrival in 2001, Boone had hit more than 20 HR's twice and had driven in more than 75 runs once in his nine year career. In fact, he hit .300 once, twice had an OBP over .325 and had an OPS over .800 once. Should we expect Boone, he with wounded pride and clearer vision, to return to the same player he was in 2001 through the first half of 2003? No. Will he improve on his 2004 campaign, possibly, but I would expect more of the same from Boone. Only one player in baseball has ever gotten better as he has gotten older, and unfortunately, it looks like he had a little help.



While no one projects Reed as a star in center, scouts look at his tools and see comparisons to Oakland's Mark Kotsay, who does a superb job in center with reads and instincts.
Fair enough.



One guess would be that Seattle's shopping list has first baseman/DH Carlos Delgado and Beltran at the top, with third baseman Adrian Beltre there, too.
The glitch with Beltre is that while he is just 25 and plays fine defense, his big offense this season (.334, 48, 121) was a first-time thing.
Anaheim third baseman Troy Glaus is another possibility, although he's not known as a team leader.
I’m not the biggest advocate of Delgado so I wouldn’t have included him in that list, but Beltre and Beltran would have been. But why bring up the fact that Troy Glaus isn’t a team leader? This shouldn’t be Glaus’ main downfall/flaw. It should be the fact he underwent shoulder surgery to repair an injury that has occurred twice the past two years while in the field. Not to mention his lack luster defense.



A lack of leadership cost the Mariners this past season, especially when the struggle to win got serious early.
Wait a second. Last season, the front office couldn’t have crammed the fact that they built a team consisting of a solid group of veteran players with tremendous leadership abilities down our throats anymore than they did. So now they didn’t have enough leadership in the clubhouse? If the M’s would have had General Schwarzkopf and General Patton on the roster last year, they still would have sucked.



Delgado is regarded as one player on the market an offense can build around, broad shouldered and always upbeat, in addition to having a dream left-handed power stroke for Safeco Field.
Let me tell you, when rebuilding a team, it is critical that you sign as a 30+ year old first baseman with broad shoulders. This way, he is able to distribute the weight of the other 24 players he will be carrying on his back.



Beyond Delgado, there could be Brush Prairie's Richie Sexson, the pure power first baseman who is said to want very much to play back home in the Northwest.
The hang-ups in Sexson's situation are that he is coming off a shoulder injury that wiped out his 2004 season with Arizona, and he would be another right-handed bat in a lineup that leans that way to start.
Enough with the Pacific Northwest connections. Maybe, just maybe, a player with some form of connections to the Northwest may want to avoid Starbucks, grunge and flannel.



In addition to the need to upgrade the offense, Seattle's defense needs reworking after years as a given.
In this case, shortstop may come into play.
The Mariners must decide if Lopez is going to be their shortstop of the future, which is not a lock after he impressed more with his bat than his fielding last season.
"The kid (Lopez) is going to get a chance to play," Bavasi said. "But we're not necessarily saying that would be at short."
Agreed, the team needs to improve the defense and shortstop was one of the weaker defensive positions for the Mariners last year. Lopez is a logical choice as the successor at second, but there is a bigger question. Are there any shortstops currently in the M’s system that will be ML ready in 2006? No. This means the team will have to shop for a SS in 2006, when the available names aren’t as appealing as they are this season. It is possible that the team can somehow figure out a way to rid itself of Boone’s contract, plug Lopez in at second and acquire a SS this off-season. Plus, Bavasi’s quote sure as hell sounds like foreshadowing to me.



On the mound, Seattle could first try to bring back Derek Lowe. Questions about his maturity that led to his trade in 1997 seemingly still linger, but he answered any doubts about his ability to pitch in a big game Wednesday, winning Game 4 of the World Series for the Red Sox.
Other starters the Mariners might look at are Carl Pavano (18-8, 3.00 earned-run average with Florida); Jaret Wright (15.8, 3.28 ERA with Atlanta), who apparently is over health and maturity issues; or a number of others such as Matt Clement, Shawn Estes, Jon Lieber and Odalis Perez.
Here we go again with the Pacific Northwest connection. Let someone else give Derek Lowe a Dexter Jackson contract. Dave explains why to avoid Pavano. Jaret Wright, no thank you. Shawn Estes?!? Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather try to brush my teeth with steel wool than pay a dime to Shawn Estes. Matt Clement is the best possibility out there and should be the M’s top free agent pitcher target. Personally, I like Odalis Perez. I know Jeff isn’t a big fan, but I think Perez will be a solid pitcher for the next three to four years.



In the bullpen, aging Troy Percival could give the M's setup or closer flexibility, as might Bob Wickman, Ugueth Urbina, Felix Rodriguez or, gulp, Armando Benitez, who had 47 saves with Florida last season. If the Mariners focus on lefties, Boston's Alan Embree, a Prairie High School graduate, will get some attention.
Felix Rodriguez had his option picked up by the Phillies. Alan Emree had a performance option he met this season, so he will be returning to the Red Sox. Benitez was one of the best NL relievers this past season and priced himself out of the Mariners price range. Troy Percival is also out of the Mariners price range. Wickman and Urbina would be cheap options, but shouldn’t be looked at until other needs are filled, similar to how the team signed Villone this year.



The Mariners' goal almost has to be a return to just being competitive next season, with a move toward contender status in 2006.
With that plan, they might add a piece or two this year — a big bat, a defensive upgrade or a reliever or two.
The goal should be for the Mariners to be competitive year in and year out, but some people in the front office dropped the ball on that this year and we will pay for it next season as well. With the amount of money this team takes in annually, there is no excuse for them not to be competitive every year. There is no reason why the M’s couldn’t add a big bat, a quality starting pitcher, a proven bullpen arm, and another bat or two this off-season. It will involve some creativity, but that’s what the suits in the front office get paid to do. And by creativity, I don’t mean on the ledger.



Then, depending on who develops, or does not, there might be more reworking next winter when Jamie Moyer's $8 million, Boone's $9.25 million and the $6 million Cirillo/Jarvis/Gonzalez headache come off the books.
Which will actually be about $7.5 million after taxes, construction fees to move the bricks that were covered by the temporary bleachers, construction costs to make the temporary bleachers permanent, a professional dance instructor for the grounds crew…



Of course, then there might be a debate how Seattle ownership would look at another potential year of the unthinkable and unpalatable — losing money.
Shut up.
If you could pick one player, regardless of price, that you want the M’s to sign this off-season, who would it be?

Who is the best free agent on the market this off-season?


The majority of you will have answered those questions with one name, Carlos Beltran. I did. Carlos Beltran is the cream of a relatively unspectacular free agent crop this off-season. Sure there are some big names available, but none of these names come without risk, some more significant than others. In any other year, Beltran would have been one of the better names available, but he wouldn’t have been placed as high on the pedestal as he has this year. Beltran is one of the more talented players in the game of baseball and is going to be paid like one.

There is no denying Beltran’s talent. He plays Gold Glove caliber defense at a premium position. He is the best offensive center fielder in baseball. He is one of the more efficient base stealers in the game. He made a seemingly easy transition from the AL to the NL, which bodes well for a team bringing him into a new environment. Everything that Beltran needed to do correctly this off-season, he delivered and Scott Boras couldn’t be happier.

As I mentioned the other day, Dayn Perry wrote a very interesting article on why he believes Carlos Beltran is an overvalued free agent. I tend to agree. I can’t recall any player in the past few years that helped themselves as much as Carlos Beltran did during the 2004 playoffs. His stats were absurd, collecting a .435/.536/1.022 stat line in 11 games with 8 home runs and a pair of highlight reel catches. His performance on the national stage is just going to give Boras further leverage in his contract negotiations. But as anyone who works with stats will tell you, sample size is everything.

Beltran is also going to draw interest from a handful of team teams who will most likely bid heavily for his services. The Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros all figure to make offers. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Anaheim Angels and even San Diego Padres are possibilities depending on the direction they take this off-season. Like any auction, the more interested buyers, the higher the price. Dave seems to believe that the Mariners are going to make a very lucrative take-it-or-leave-it opening offer to Beltran, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 years $95 million. The M’s obviously would be setting the market for Beltran, offering him a higher per season average salary than many analysts have speculated he would ultimately sign for (7 years $100 million). My guess is similar to Dave’s; Beltran will reject the offer and use it as the starting point for further negotiations, with the M’s and other clubs. Ultimately, I think Beltran will be wearing a Red Sox uniform, but who knows.

But back toward the main topic of the post, is Beltran overvalued? Last season, Vlad was the biggest name available on the market and was awarded a 5 year $70 million pact with the Angels, which was a freaking steal. So how does the top free agent from last years class match-up against the top two free agents from this year’s class, (remembering that Vlad spent a large chunk of time on the DL)?


Player

RC in ‘04

IsO in '04

EqA in '04

VORP in '04

Beltran

120.38

.280

.293 & .308

68.5*

Beltre

145.89

.294

.331

90.3



Player

RC in ‘03

IsO in '03

EqA in '03

VORP in '02 and '03**

Vlad

98.41

.256

.319

76.4 & 39.8



* The combined VORP from his time in Houston and KC.

**Vlad spent the a large portion of the 2003 season on the DL, so I included his 2002 VORP to help in the comparison.

Despite the glaring fact that M’s would have been smarter signing Vlad last season at what might be the best contract in baseball, you can see that both free agents had terrific seasons in 2004.

Both play solid, if not spectacular defense at their respective positions. Beltran had a rating (RAA2) of 2 in both KC and HOU and Beltre had a very impressive rating (RAA2) of 13, and neither has shown any signs of their defensive abilities regressing. In comparison, Vlad is slightly above average for his position. Beltran has the obvious edge defensively (but not by much), as center field defense is critical, especially for a ballpark such as SafeCo.

But there is something that strikes me as peculiar when looking at Beltran’s stats. He stunk at home, which is odd since he played in two of the better hitter’s parks in baseball. His .225/.316/.458 home stat line is similar top the numbers that Randy Winn put up at home last season, but with a little more power. Beltre was an equal opportunity masher, knocking the baseball out of one of the best pitchers parks in baseball and doing it on the road as well.

Of course, there is the whole money issue. Beltran is a terrific ballplayer, but is he really worth the largest contract since A-Rod? What about more than Vladimir? How much is a team willing to pay for a good offensive outfielder who happens to play Gold Glove defense in center? It’s too early to tell, but it will be a lot, a lot more than I think the M’s are willing to invest. Besides, Beltre figures to sign a contract somewhere in between Scott Rolen and Eric Chavez (6 years $70 million?), which would enable the team to pursue other free agents, both this season and down the line, without the financial restraints a deal with Beltran might pose (especially next season when Boone, Wilson, Moyer, Shiggy and Wiki Gonzalez will come off the books).

I have to admit, when I began writing this piece, I was sold that Beltran was the best possible player for this team, with Adrian Beltre close on his heels. But my opinion on the situation has changed a little and their roles have been flipped. I still think the club should offer Beltran a contract, but should he reject it, they should turn their full attention toward Beltre. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Beltran is an exceptional ball player. But for a team, who utilizes “fuzzy math” better than any team in baseball when computing their books, rolling the dice and hoping Beltran can continue his current production pace and/or improve, is going to be a costly investment.


Friday, October 29, 2004

Question from one of our readers that I felt would be a good write up.

Do you guys like Price or not? Who do you want if you don't like him?


I think the best way to describe the retention of Bryan Price is ambivalence. I think Price is a good baseball man, but I question all the praise he has gotten as the Mariner pitching coach. It’s hard not to acknowledge the remarkable turnaround of the Seattle Mariner pitching staff starting in 2000, (Price’s first year on the job), when they went from one of the worst pitching clubs in baseball to one of the best. A lot of that had to do with talent the team brought in from outside the club, (Rhodes, Nelson, Sele, Sasaki, etc.), and the development of Garcia and Pineiro, not to mention Moyer becoming one of the most effective 40 year olds in baseball history. But does Price deserve credit? Sure.

The thing that I think has scarred Price’s record more than anything else in his control are the high numbers of injuries that have occurred to some of the organizations top young pitching talent. I am fully aware that the injuries reflect more on flawed organizational techniques, but the injuries could inevitably rest on Price’s shoulders. We all know about the Anderson’s and the Meche’s of our farm system, but this year several major league arms succumbed to significant arm injuries. Pineiro, Guardado and Soriano all suffered serious injuries in 2004, injuries that you could argue are preventable. While I understand that injuries can be freak occurrences, it is the job of the coaching staff to express their concerns surrounding their key players to the training staff.

The Mariners have shown in the past and this season that they don’t fully comprehend the extreme importance of monitoring a pitchers workload and are paying the price for it. For instance, using Baseball Prospectus’ Pitcher Abuse Points system, the Mariners had five of the 50 most abused pitchers in baseball (Garcia, Maddy, Franklin, Meche, Pineiro) this season and Moyer wasn’t far off the mark finishing at 57th. The scariest part about the PAP scoring is that Madritsch, Meche and Pineiro are high on the list, as all three were used in minimal roles this season.

Many of the Mariners top prospects have been exposed to strenuous workloads that often times are contributing factors to the injuries that have afflicted the M’s young arms. Some of the top arms not only pitched full minor league seasons, but also went to various winter leagues to help refine their skills, often decided by the front office with input from the Price and other coaches up and down the system. Hopefully some of their philosophies have changed this season, as they shut down King Felix and George Sherrill early this season for precautionary reasons.

So a simple question turned into a long winded answer, but the point is still there. Do I like Price, yes, but I don’t believe he is one of the best pitching coaches in baseball and the other names mentioned as replacements like Mark Wiley, would have been nothing more than a lateral move at best. I question why Price and Melvin allowed the Mariners arms to become one of the most abused staffs in the majors. If Melvin was the one making the calls, I’m disappointed that Price didn’t question him and try to play a bigger role in how he utilized the arms. Hopefully this season Price and Hargrove will work well together and help get the Mariners back on the right track.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Congratulations to the 2004 World Series Champions Boston Red Sox. Boston joined a short list of teams to sweep their opponents in the World Series as they outplayed the St. Louis Cardinals in every facet of the past four games. Manny Ramirez was named MVP of the WS, which in my opinion, should have gone to either Pedro or Schilling. The one thing that excites me the most about the Boston win, is that the Curse of the Bambino is officially dead.

This four game sweep brings up an interesting debate/question regarding match-ups. Does good pitching trump good hitting, or vice versa? Boston had the best offensive club in the majors this year and St. Louis was one of the better pitching clubs in baseball, (they had the best bullpen in the majors and the 9th best starting rotation). So good offense beats good pitching, or does it? Jeff discussed the Cardinal staff a couple of days ago and how the Cardinals 1-5 don’t exactly dominate every time they take the mound. Add the fact that the Boston line-up can flat out hit, the results didn't look promising for the Cards. It’s an interesting topic, one that I hope to write something up on by the end of the weekend, time permitting.

I stumbled across this article the other day on FoxSports.com and have been working on something regarding Carlos Beltran’s value this off-season. Beltran is going to become a very rich man this off-season and will most likely sign the largest contract in baseball since Alex Rodriguez joined the Texas Rangers, (think 7 years/$100 million as a starting point). Don’t get me wrong, Carlos Beltran is an extremely talented player, both offensively and defensively, and plays a prime position. But someone is going to be giving him a lot of money to be wearing their uniform next season, but how just how far should a team go in filling out that pay check?

Couple Quick Notes:

~ Bryan Price is staying. Please wait as I spin around in my chair and shout “whoopee!”
~ The D-Backs and Marlins have both taken significant steps to ensure that Richie Sexson and Mike Lowell will remain with their respective ball clubs next season.
~ Eric Hinske is on the market. If you’re not scared, check your pulse.
~ Apparently, the Yanks have decided to give up on Javier Vazquez and will try to use him as the key piece along with paying for a decent portion of the contract in a Randy Johnson trade. Would anyone else mind Vazquez at the expense of say, Bret Boone?

The baseball season is officially over and it’s time for the Hot Stove to be lit. I’m anticipating that this is going to be one hell of an off-season, so sit back and enjoy the ride**, it should be entertaining to say the least.

** May I recommend that you wear a seat belt, just in case they take a corner to fast, lose control and smash into an embankment.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

I've got bad news (or good news, if you don't like me): something came up, and I won't be able to finish the three-part series until the beginning of next week as I'm going out of town. In the meantime, you can either mope about it, read the other blogs, or bug Trent to say something about something.
Bryan Price is sticking around.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

You know, whoever signs Pedro this winter would do well to exercise their creativity and turn him into a Sunday starter - he is just a completely different pitcher on extended rest.
Part two of a three-part series looking forward to the offseason

Winter 2004: A Pessimist's Perspective

After finishing with the team's worst record since 1983, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone affiliated with the Mariners organization who has something positive to say about the season. The rotation was inconsistent, the offense struggled to score runs, and the bullpen - a strength in seasons past - was torn apart by injuries and inexperience. They managed to avoid the dreaded 100-loss plateau by the slimmest of margins, forcing one manager out the door immediately following the season and bringing in another with experience under similar circumstances. This is as good a place to start as any.

The Offense

Not a whole bunch went well in this department. The team finished last in the AL in runs scored, slugging percentage, and homers, led by a leadoff hitter who didn't hit the ball with much authority and who may have strung together quite a fluky season. A batter's singles rate is prone to significant year-to-year fluctuation, and Ichiro's jumped up by 33% over 2003's figure. As a player who doesn't hit for power and who has drawn just 120 unintentional walks in four full seasons, Ichiro's offensive value is dependent on the amount of singles he hits, and hitting them at the rate that he displayed in 2004 just isn't sustainable over a multiyear period. As exciting a player as he is, there is no evidence to suggest that Ichiro is able to hit the ball wherever he wants (e.g. away from the defenders), and - as such - he's going to decline next year.

And that's just where it starts. Raul Ibanez and Randy Winn were simultaneously the second and third best hitters on the team while being roughly league-average for their positions. That's right: only one hitter on the 2004 Seattle Mariners could be considered an above-average player. What's more is that these guys were given nearly $8m to be decent players, and at 32 and 30 years old, respectively, each is likely to see his production decline before his contract says it should.

Beyond that, you've got a 35 year old second baseman who got an $8m reward for hitting .251 over 150 games - the kind of rapid offensive decline also seen in similar second basemen, such as Joe Gordon and Ryne Sandberg, when they reached their mid-30s. Boone's due for laser eye surgery in the offseason, but after seeing how that worked out last year, forgive me for being skeptical. Boone cites "fogging up of his contacts" as one of his problems last year, but as I or anyone else who wears contact lenses can tell you, that doesn't happen.

There's also a 32 year old third baseman in there who put up a .634 OPS and struggled through back injuries in the first year of a moderately expensive three-year deal; there's a 35 year old catcher whose entire body is being held together by rubber cement; there's a 31 year old utility player who was routinely praised by the fans, manager, and organization for hitting .270/.312/.384; there's a 26 year old utility player who's significantly worse; and there's a young backstop airlifted from Chicago midseason who promptly forgot both how to hit and how to catch, two relatively important abilities for a catcher to possess.

It doesn't end there. The team gave ample playing time to a bunch of rookies in the second half, and the results were mixed: Bucky Jacobsen launched a few balls over the fence but otherwise hit like a normal DH, Justin Leone showed a bunch of power but struggled to keep his OBP around .300, Jose Lopez hit like the pre-2004 Deivi Cruz, Greg Dobbs didn't do a damned thing, and even Jeremy Reed managed to look unimpressive despite hitting .400 in September. Each of these players can contribute something to a team, but not as starters on a competitive ballclub, not as soon as 2005.

The Defense

Yeah, it was going to get worse. It should've been better than that, though.

Early in the season, Randy Winn provided a daily reminder that Mike Cameron's bat wasn't the only thing we'd miss, routinely misreading flyballs and returning the ball to the infield with a textbook example of a popgun arm. Meanwhile, Ibanez failed to run down balls that Winn used to get a year ago, and even Ichiro looked a little worse out there than he did in 2003 - although that may be due to the fact that he was forced to cover more ground to make up for Winn's inadequacy.

The problems carried over to the infield, too. Bret Boone, normally one of the best defensive second basemen in the league, saw his rating (RAA2) slip from a happy +10 to a dreadful -13 - a 23-run difference, the likes of which I've never seen before. The shortstops - all of them - displayed poor range, Scott Spiezio was hampered by his back, and the rookies each had their own problems doing something as trivial as throwing the ball to first base. If Jacobsen is forced into putting on a glove from time to time...well, even a masochist has his limits. Looking ahead to 2005, you have to hope that the younger players will have developed in the field over the winter, because none of the veterans are going to reverse time and turn into plus defenders overnight. Without some free agent signings, and with more Miguel Olivo behind the dish, this group is going to be worse.

The Pitching

If the Mariners were so confident in their new offense coming into the year that they planned to give up a bunch more runs yet still win 90-95 games, well, they got it half-right. Partly due to a defensive downgrade but mostly thanks to simple regression to the mean, most of the staff had worse campaigns in 2004 than they had in the previous year. Joel Pineiro's alarming injury opened the door to some promising rookies, many of whom had a rough go of it; Travis Blackley was burned beyond recognition, Clint Nageotte turned a promising beginning into a horrifying conclusion, and Cha Baek was routinely lit up until his final start of the year. Even the best of the bunch, Bobby Madritsch, has some questions going foward, as his strikeout rate was less than stellar, he battled with control on occasion, and he was abused by Bob Melvin more than nearly every other starter in baseball. Whether or not he continues to be an effective #2-quality pitcher has yet to be determined, but his track record suggests that he'll settle into a lesser role once the averages work out and the league gets familiar with him. If nothing else, this isn't the kind of guy you want leading the rotation if you want to build a competitive team.

The leftovers accumulated beatings of their own. Ryan Franklin did what we all thought he would - that is, allow more runners to cross the plate while serving up a bunch of gopherballs. He was eaten alive by his abysmal strikeout rate, as batters put the ball in play with ease and saw several balls drop into the porous outfield. Going forward, he's not going to get any better unless he learns to put hitters away, which - if his career to date is any indication - isn't very likely. Jamie Moyer finally had the down year that people have been waiting for, losing just enough of his pinpoint control to inadevertently place tasty meatballs over the plate. That's the kind of problem that doesn't often fix itself in 40+ year old pitchers - that's a sign of decline. Gil Meche came back from Tacoma and put up a below-average strikeout rate in the second half while giving 15 fans their very own souvenirs. If nothing else, at least Madritsch doesn't have the longball issues that the rest of the staff does.

Ron Villone made some good starts, remembered that his name is Ron Villone, and returning to Suckville. His 5.43 ERA in the rotation essentially met expectations, but don't worry, that won't keep the front office from re-signing him.

The bullpen went from mediocre and old to mediocre and slightly less old, as the second half saw a series of auditions given to minor league relievers too old to consider prospects. George Sherrill, the most promising of the bunch, showed neither the command or strikeout ability that he had in Tacoma. Matt Thornton, another lefty, seemingly derived intense pleasure from putting people on base roughly "when he felt like it." Shigetoshi Hasegawa bombed - nothing to see here - Clint Nageotte sucked, and Rafael Soriano threw a handful of ineffective innings before he was put on the shelf. Even Julio Mateo saw his ERA rise 49% from 2003. The saving graces, so to speak, were Ron Villone, JJ Putz, and Scott Atchison, none of whom have particularly encouraging track records of continued success. Atchison dramatically exceeded his Tacoma numbers, Putz was eminently hittable, and Villone walked too many hitters to be considered a legitimate option for lefty specialist.

What do we rely on in 2005, then? Youngsters without encouraging histories and little ML experience? Veterans who can't figure out why their ERAs nearly quadrupled? (Okay, there's only one of those.) A homer-prone closer who's banking on the ill-advised health benefits of rest and relaxation, rather than surgery? There are a whole lotta unknowns in the 'pen going into 2005, which is the polite way of saying that this isn't a group in which people should have a lot of confidence next year, considering that the rotation is going to need a lot of relief. Tough as it is to understand, given the organization's reputation in recent years, the pitching at the big league level is in pretty bad shape.

The Manager

Firing Melvin, and replacing him with a more experienced approximation of himself, isn't going to lead the team away from troubled waters. Hargrove inherited a bad team with a blend of rookies and veterans, and the Orioles won 275 games in four years under his guidance. He's got a more lively personality than Melvin did as the skipper, but that has about as much of an impact on a team's success as giving a glove to Derek Jeter (ba-dum tsssshhh). What it boils down to is that Hargrove exhibits the same kind of treatment of the pitching staff as Melvin, from abusing young starters to swapping relievers every three pitches if it means a matchup advantage. He probably won't bunt as often as the last guy, but that only means five or ten more legitimate at bats over the course of a full season, which - with this offense - will probably be squandered.

Bob Melvin won 93 games with the Mariners before the team fell flat on its face in 2004. The difference between him and Hargrove is that Hargrove won't have the successful first season to keep critics at bay that Melvin did.

The Offseason

"We're willing to operate at a loss if it means putting a competitive team on the field for the people of Seattle."

"We don't have $28-30m to spend this offseason - the people who say that are egrigiously misinformed. We will have about $22m of leeway over the winter, which should give Bill enough flexibility to plug holes as he sees fit."

Stop me if you've heard this before.

It's the same old story, year after year - the team has money, but won't admit to having said money, citing constraints and contingency funds when it quickly falls out of the running for an available big-name player. The fact of the matter is that we have more money to spend this winter than we ever have before, but try to find a quote from someone within the organization willing to concede as much. The team is in no danger of operating at a loss, but that hasn't stopped Lincoln from deceiving the fans before, and he isn't likely to develop a conscious any time soon. What does that mean in the here and now? Unlike in recent years, the organization knows that it can't rest on its laurels - there are too many holes on the big league roster. However, it still has its time-tested misconceptions that the only way to improve is by bringing in experience and, in the case of offense, left-handed sticks. If you've closed your eyes and listened to your surroundings any time recently, you may have detected a faint buzzing sound that seems to be growing in intensity by the day. That noise is Howard Lincoln's omniscient voice, subliminally instructing you to accept the team's plan and welcome Carlos Delgado and Kevin Millwood to town with open arms. And we can't have any more of these rookies running around and acting like they own the place; say hello to David Dellucci and Dustin Hermanson.

When you're a good team, and you head into the offseason with the intent of keeping things together for the most part, you're minimizing the odds of both extreme success and extraordinary failure (with the obvious exception of, well, the 2004 Seattle Mariners). When you're a bad team, and you head into the offseason with a flawed business model and the intent of improving the team as quickly as possible, then you've got one of those neat little high risk/high reward things going on. When there are ways to eliminate as much of that risk as possible, though, and your front office doesn't see them, then you're carelessly giving yourself worse odds of success simply because you don't want to explore new ideas.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The first in a three-part series looking forward to the offseason

Winter 2004: An Optimist's Perspective

After finishing with the team's worst record since 1983, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone affiliated with the Mariners organization who has something positive to say about the season. The rotation was inconsistent, the offense struggled to score runs, and the bullpen - a strength in seasons past - was torn apart by injuries and inexperience. They managed to avoid the dreaded 100-loss plateau by the slimmest of margins, forcing one manager out the door immediately following the season and bringing in another with experience under similar circumstances. This is as good a place to start as any.

The Offense

The transition is only halfway complete - that is, the old, declining hitters are mostly gone, but the new ones have yet to be added - but there is reason to consider this situation with a glass-half-full mentality. Reversing a two-year decline from his breakthrough 2001, Ichiro ran away with the all-time hits record, collecting 262 knocks while batting .372 - the highest mark in the AL since George Brett in 1980. It's absolutely vital for the top of a lineup to get on base in order to set up run-scoring opportunities for the middle of the oder, and Ichiro did his job by reaching at a .414 clip. A tremendous hitter with extraordinary bat control and hand-eye coordination, Ichiro may possess the rare ability to hit the ball away from the fielders, which makes him a valuable asset to the offense. Between his batting and his baserunning, there isn't a better leadoff hitter in the league.

It doesn't stop there, either. Randy Winn quietly managed an above-average offensive season despite having to adjust to a new position, his final numbers being almost identical to his 2003 line. Raul Ibanez outperformed nearly every projection, succeeding at Safeco while also showing marked improvement against southpaws (.780 OPS). Most importantly, there were flashes of potential from the younger players who will be critical to the future of the organization: Bucky Jacobsen clobbered the snot out of the ball for 160 at bats, Justin Leone took a few deliveries into the upper deck, Jose Lopez saw his power translate into the Majors at the age of 20, and Jeremy Reed came up and hit .400 in September. Newcomer Miguel Olivo showed a lot of power before falling into a miserable funk, Greg Dobbs got his feet wet and homered in his first at bat, and even Willie Bloomquist drove two balls out of the park. Whether each player's future is in the lineup or on the bench as a role player, they all showed that they can do a little something with the bat, and the collective power potential is intriguing for fans of a team that hasn't had that kind of punch in recent years.

Should Jolbert Cabrera continue to provide some versatility and batting average off the bench, Bret Boone benefit from his Lasik surgery (to correct a problem that he says hung with him all season), and Scott Spiezio rebound from an injury-plagued 2004 campaign to hit like he did in Anaheim (at whatever position), this offense may only be an FA bat or two away from legitimate, consistent productivity next season.

The Defense

The blogosphere really did a number on these guys (myself included). Despite losing Mike Cameron - forcing Randy Winn to center - DFA'ing Olerud midseason, replacing Guillen with Aurilia, having the league-leader in passed balls behind the plate, and playing a bunch of rookies in the second half, the Mariners still managed to finish second in the AL in Defensive Efficiency (a measure of the amount of balls in play that a defense turns into outs), trailing Tampa Bay by just four ten-thousandths of a point. The team was due to decline from 2003's historical performance, and credit should be given to the group for playing pretty well under the circumstances. The most important change was Winn moving several steps to his left, and he handled the situation admirably, developing his route-running ability over the course of the season to the point at which he might even be considered an above-average center fielder. Extra-base hits were up for the entire staff in 2004, but this should be blamed more on worse pitching than on Winn, Ichiro, and Ibanez - the last of whom did a much better job in left field than most expected, including several strong throws to nail runners at the plate.

There isn't much reason to believe that the defense will be worse in 2005. The younger players - each of whom initially struggled with their throws before settling into a groove after a few weeks - are over their early jitters, and none of the outfielders are yet in danger of losing a step. The guys behind the pitchers should be considered a strength next year.

The Pitching

Seattle's ERA was up exactly 1.00 points from their 2003 figure - that's a 27% increase. I'd love to see a list of teams who have had such a dramatic year-to-year performance swing.

It was bad (God bless you, Bobby Madritsch and half of Freddy Garcia) - more things went wrong than I can count - but there were positives that are going to show up as the 2005 season moves along. First and foremost, Madritsch came up and answered the call for a top-of-the-rotation starter by posting a 3.27 ERA in 88 outstanding innings of work. A guy who would've been the top story of the year if not for those Ichiro and Edgar guys, Madritsch wasn't expected to contribute much of anything to the big league club before the year began, angrily optioned to AAA Tacoma after spring training and vowing that he would prove himself to the front office. Seven months later, his stock has risen from "potential long reliever/bullpen lefty" to "dependable #2". He's a mature, humble, and confident presence on the mound, and his low home run rate portends continued success.

Behind Madritsch, it was a mixed bag, in the way that a veritable assortment can be created by dumping a handful of Skittles into a sack of manure. Still, though, there are reasons to look ahead: Pineiro endured an unexpectedly rough campaign before succumbing to injury, but his strained flexor bundle is apparently in tip-top shape and he should be ready in time for Opening Day. Jamie Moyer had his worst season since 2000 but was the victim of an otherworldly home run rate that may have been - if only partially - flukish in nature. Ryan Franklin, despite some of the worst run support in all of baseball, managed to toss 200 innings, and could be aided by a better offense in 2005. And Gil Meche, everybody's favorite variable, came back from Tacoma in the middle of summer and showed much better control over the remainder of the season, his performance tainted by a bunch of home runs that may be due to overconfidence. There is a very legitimate chance that each of these four starters will be better next year than they were this past season perhaps significantly so.

Beyond the comparitive veterans, there were a handful of younger pitchers who got an opportunity in the rotation. Travis Blackley got obliterated in every sense of the word, but came down with an injury that may have been hampering his ability on the playing field. Clint Nageotte showed flashes of the great prospect he used to be, including six strong innings against Houston in his first career start, and is only a few months of work in AAA away from bursting into the Majors for good. Even Cha Baek, a useful pitcher who's been overshadowed in this organization, had his moments, including eight shutout innings of Texas in his last start of the year. The experience will only help these players develop, and there is a chance that two of them could see considerable time on the ML roster as soon as this season.

The bullpen was a mess for most of the year, but it began to settle down as summer came to a close. Eddie Guardado was everything people expected of him (if a little homer-prone) before going down to injury, but he should be back at full strength in time for 2005 if his R&R treatment goes according to plan. The most important consequence of Guardado's absence was JJ Putz's ascent from Minor League unknown to ML closer. Putz had the typical up-and-down season performance that you'd expect from a rookie thrown into high-leverage situations, but he finished the year with a 2.20 ERA from August 1st on, striking out 12 while walking just one along the way. It's unlikely that Putz will be closing many more games, but he's established himself as a decent reliever at the ML minimum, and will be counted on to get some tough outs in the middle innings.

Beyond the closer role, there were some interesting contributions from other unexpected sources. Despite the blogosphere's warnings, the Mariners brought Ron Villone to camp and he promptly rewarded the team with 117 league-average innings. A southpaw who had good games out of the bullpen and the rotation, Villone could provide valuable swingman innings should one of the rotation members struggle (and if he's re-signed, which - by all indications - he will be). Matt Thornton overcame his bouts of wildness to put up a decent ERA and strong home run/strikeout rates in 32 innings of work. He cut down his walk rate after a brutal month of July, and is another candidate for long-relief/sixth-starter duty in the bullpen. Scott Atchison surprised everyone with his 10.52 K/9 and 2.57 K/BB, hopefully proving to the front office that useful relievers can be found anywhere and everywhere, and that you don't need to give big money and multiyear contracts to players with iffy track records. George Sherrill and Julio Mateo appeared in 66 games between the two of 'em, the former looking to establish himself as the primary lefty in the bullpen and the latter pitching much better than his ERA would suggest.

Candidates for next year's bullpen include Guardado, Mateo, Hasegawa, Atchison, Putz, Sherrill, Villone, Thornton, Taylor, and Williams. The selected group has the potential to be quite good while also being pretty cheap, allowing the team to explore upgrades at other positions.

The Manager

Bob Melvin didn't know how to manage a rebuilding team. His only prior managerial experience came with a competitive group of experienced veterans in 2003, and that didn't do him much good in the second half last season. Replacing him is Mike Hargrove, a guy with experience coaching Cleveland and Baltimore clubs in similar situations as the Mariners are these days. There are definite similarities between the two managers - if looking exclusively at how they handle the pitching staff, you might not be able to tell them apart - but Hargrove is a better in-game tactician who's more open-minded and versatile with the players he's got. He's also unlikely to employ the same smallball strategies as we saw from Melvin from time to time. DMZ thinks that Hargrove needs to have a good pitching coach around, but Price is a pretty good influence, so I don't think you'll see the same kind of rotation abuse as we saw in Cleveland in the '90s.

The Offseason

So this is where everybody starts to disagree with each other, isn't it? Nobody's entirely sure quite what to expect - the team has a bunch of holes, a bunch of spending money, and a bunch of players to choose from.

As long as I'm in an optimistic state of mind, I'll tell you why there's reason to feel good about what's going to happen:

This team hasn't had to entirely rebuild its lineup in several years.

Say what you will about management's commitment to winning - I know that I questioned said commitment in my "Fuzzy Math" post just a few days ago - but everybody in that office knows that putting another lousy team on the field is going to get them run out of town. Even if they're only concerned with making money, you can make a bigger profit by spending a little more on a competitive team than by spending next to nothing on a terrible one.

Lincoln and Bavasi have come out and said the right things - we'll be looking at all the big names, we have money to offer, etc. Even if the team decides to limit its spending to about $22m over the winter, that's more than enough for one of the big names and one of the potential-bargain-second-tier guys in the Sexson/Glaus/Clement mold.

For the first time in the recent history of this organization, we have both the need and available resources to bring in a Carlos Beltran, an Adrian Beltre, or a JD Drew. No more of these token small offers to big names, citing invisible constraints - even with a payroll well below where it *should* be, relative to the other teams in the league, we have more money to spend than we've had in any previous offseason, and there are no apparent limitations to what we could offer the elite available players.

There are good vibes coming from all over the place, from Bill Bavasi to Jim Street to David Cameron. The front office is poised to make an unprecedented run at a player who we never could have imagined playing for the Mariners, and there's a good chance that we grab one of those players and he leads us to a successful, competitive 2005 campaign.
I will begin a three-part series on the offseason this afternoon, time permitting. In the meantime, I invite you to savor possibly the only intelligent statement offered by the FOX broadcast, coming in the middle innings of last night's game:

"Morris hasn't been able to put away the Red Sox hitters when they're down two strikes, and they've made him pay."

The Cardinals' entire staff is comprised of pitchers who'd rather get you out with a grounder or a pop-up - that is, they put the ball in play and trust the defense behind them. Against a lineup as strong 1-through-9 as Boston's, you can't afford to let the batters make contact as often as other teams because there's not a guy in the order who can't hurt you.

In any given at bat, a good hitter is probably going to strikeout, walk, or hit the ball hard. Pitchers such as the ones populating St. Louis' staff are essentially minimizing the probability of one of those three possible outcomes and crossing their fingers that the ball gets hit right at a defender. That's not a very good strategy when you're going up against the best offense in baseball.