One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
The Seattle Mariners finished the 2011 season with a 67-95 record. They were last in the American League in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They took their lumps while letting young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp gain experience. Fortunately, those three performed well enough to give management hope that they will be regular contributors next season.
Unfortunately, they did not perform well enough to offset the terrible production from the rest of the team. While Carlos Peguero and Casper Wells may get extended looks next season, they don’t figure to make enough of a difference to pull Seattle out of the depths of American League offensive rankings.
The team payroll has hovered around the mid-$90 million mark the past couple of seasons. Some money will come off the books, as financial drains like Milton Bradley will no longer count against the budget. But while that amount is significant—perhaps approaching 15 percent of the payroll—the normal process of arbitration raises cut into the surplus a little. Barring moves to further shed payroll, spending significant money this offseason would require ownership to raise the budget.
Huge contracts to Felix Hernandez, Chone Figgins and Ichiro Suzuki take up a great deal of the current budget. Trading Suzuki and/or Figgins would not provide relief to the payroll, since dealing either would likely require Seattle to pick up most of their remaining tab. Furthermore, Suzuki and Figgins probably would not garner many talented prospects since their poor play of late has greatly diminished their value. Trading Hernandez, however, would probably net a load of talent.
Reasons to trade Hernandez
It is unlikely Seattle will contend for the AL West next season. If we accept the following propositions, then the Mariners’ outlook is bleak.
First, the Rangers will be the prohibitive favorite to win their third straight division title in 2012. Second, the Angels, despite dealing with their own offensive problems, were better on the field than the Mariners in 2011 and are better on paper right now. If Seattle doesn’t add a great deal of offense through free agency this offseason, the Mariners appear to be too far behind their division rivals to contend not only next year, but in the next few years.
Hernandez is good, and he is young. He has a career strikeout-per-nine rate of 8.2 and has thrown over 230 innings each of the past three seasons. He won’t turn 26 until April of next year. He surely would be attractive to any team harboring thoughts of contending in 2012 and beyond.
Hernandez is due around $60 million over the next three years. While that is a lot of money for someone so young, it is as conceivable as it is remarkable that he may still have his best seasons in front of him.
Considering he won the AL Cy Young Award last year and has posted fWar figures of 6.8, 6.2 and 5.5 the past three seasons, the thought of him actually improving on those numbers and his 3.24 career ERA means plenty of teams would be interested in absorbing Hernandez’s contract.
The package of players in exchange for Hernandez would be significant. This is not the Twins trading Johan Santana months before he was due for free agency, and it’s not the Blue Jays dealing Roy Halladay when he was a year away from free agency. This would be a team dealing a younger ace who is three years from free agency.
We have to figure the Mariners could ask for at least one major league player in addition to more than one top prospect in return for such a talented young pitcher.
Another point—and an extremely speculative one—when considering whether to trade a pitcher making $20 million a year is the number of innings on his arm. For the past three years, Hernandez has finished in the top six in Pitcher Abuse Points (first this past season) at Baseball Prospectus.
Now, several of thr best pitchers in the majors consistently rank near the top in Prospecus’ PAP stat simply because they are good enough to stay in games and pitch a lot of innings. We shouldn’t assume someone ranking first in PAP in 2011 is due for Tommy John surgery the next year.
However, if nothing else, the ranking illustrates that there has been a relatively heavy workload on a very young and very valuable arm. Some teams may be able to afford, on the field as well as financially, to lose a star pitcher for a time due to injury. Seattle cannot.
Reasons to keep Hernandez
Hernandez is young, and he’s good and, despite the gibberish in the last paragraph, he’s been durable. Even though he’s a sizable drain on the team’s finances, according to this value assessment on Fangraphs, he has more than earned his salary the past three seasons. If he continues to pitch well, or (as is very likely) improves his pitching, he will justify the bump in salary that sees him draw around $20 million annually the next three years.
King Felix has a no-trade clause in his contract. This article mentions that there are 10 teams he has nixed for potential trade destinations. Among those 10 teams are big-spending franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Phillies.
With Hernandez narrowing the list of clubs he’d accept a trade to—and blocking some of the richest franchises—it could force Seattle to take a hit on how much it could get in return. The teams that have the best prospects might be out of the running because they can’t afford his salary.
Sure, Hernandez could always allow a trade to one of the wealthy teams that he initially blocked, but he’d have all the leverage in such a move, presumably to ask for an extension to his contract or simply to choose the team to which he would want to go.
Or, as William of Occam may have argued, he listed the most likely trade targets simply because he likes it in Seattle and doesn’t want the team to trade him. Either way, for the Mariners it would again mean the potential for a smaller return than they’d get if they could open the bidding to every team.
No matter how big a return Seattle could squeeze for Hernandez, such a move would signal that the rebuilding process is not nearing an end. Attendance in Seattle has dropped for four straight years and fell below the two million mark for the first time since 1995. If Seattle deals its best player, it would send a signal to fans that it doesn’t plan to contend for quite some time. That could send attendance figures falling further.
As mentioned above, the Mariners do have some contracts expiring, and some money will be freed up this winter. Suzuki’s contract expires after next season, which clears another $18 million off the books.
If ownership would be willing to bite the bullet and add money to payroll, a player like Prince Fielder would add a significant threat to the middle of the order. Fielder’s relative youth also would mean his signing not only would add a quick boost to their horrible offense in the next couple of seasons, but it might help the team significantly over the course of the next eight years. It could also mean a reversal in declining gate receipts.
Seattle should not trade Hernandez this offseason. If he remains on the team for 2012, Hernandez joins 22-year-old Michael Pineda to form a strong top of the rotation. Barring injury, his value should still be very high at the trade deadline in 2012. By waiting until then, the Mariners would have more time to see how their young players are progressing and perhaps have a better idea ofwhen the rebuilding effort will transition into a club that can contend annually.
They should pour their payroll surplus (which grows to around $33 million after Ichiro leaves next season) into some free agent hitters. If they can avoid players at the end of their careers, the Mariners could try to improve their offense in the short term while still keeping an eye toward the future.
With up-and-coming young players like Ackley and Carp outperforming many of Seattle’s overpaid veterans, the future looks somewhat promising in Seattle as those overpaid veterans end their time with the club. Even though the Mariners don’t have the depth and talent as seen in Texas, for the time being there are only three other teams to compete with in their division. If Texas were to suffer a few injuries (and players like Josh Hamilton have been injury prone), then, as they say, anything could happen.