The 2009 Mariners became a bit of a darling in the sabermetric world. The proponents of the non-traditional fielding stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Plus/Minus were actually able to see their beliefs translate to on-field success. You see, the Mariners brought in a group of players rated highly by UZR and +/- but were undervalued in the market due to the fact that they didn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers.
Consequently, the 2009 Mariners finished the year 85-77, which is a much better record than many (myself included) had them pegged for prior to the season. When Russell Branyan was arguably your best hitter, conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t finish with 85 wins – especially not in the American League. But their stellar defense (only three pitchers on the entire team finished with an ERA higher than their FIP) as well as an elite season from ace Felix Hernandez gave the M’s a 24-win improvement in the span of a year.
So what do they need to do to get to 90+ wins and contend for a playoff spot? The good news is, the Mariners have some play money this year. Aside from the $18M owed to Ichiro and the ludicrous $12.75M going to pay Carlos Silva, Seattle doesn’t have any contract obligations that will cost them more than $5M in 2010. It does not appear that they will re-sign third baseman Adrian Beltre and the money saved there should at least cover the expected arbitration raises for their younger players and then some. Add in the close to $17M that free agent pitchers Miguel Batista and Erik Bedard made (not to mention the god-send that was Kenji Johjima walking away from his contract), and the Mariners have financial capacity. Therefore…
Ease up a tad on the bargain hunting. One of the things that I often write about here on the ol’ blog is the importance of maintaining financial flexibility in terms of payroll. Don’t pay extra for something you’ve already got (like, say, signing a replacement level player or four to seven figure contracts), and only consider future performance instead of past accomplishments (trading any prospect for a 38 year-old former All Star with three years left on a contract is usually not encouraged). However, bargain hunting often only gets you so far. While guys like Jack Hannahan and Mike Carp will probably add a couple wins on the cheap, they’re not going to add five or six a piece. And the Mariners have a lot of Hannahan-types on their roster. Sometimes, you need to pay some cash and roll the dice. To get to the next level without commiting $300M over the next five years, this is what needs to be done.
Luckily for the Mariners, there are guys worth gambling on, like Ben Sheets or Rich Harden. Yes, the Mariners tried something similar with Erik Bedard last year and got only 83 innings out of the guy before he inevitably got hurt again. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea at the time. In this market, I’d imagine that Sheets would have a hard time finding a multi-year deal and could be had for $7-8M plus incentives and that sounds like a reasonable chance to take for a team lacking an impact starter after King Felix.
Offensively, the re-signing of Ken Griffey Jr. was a bad idea for two reasons. One, his on-field production is now replacement level and is therefore not even worth the $2M. Two, he takes up a roster spot (corner OF) that could have been used to bring in some much needed power into the fold. But what’s done is done and now the M’s must figure out how to work their roster with the current conditions.
Bringing back Russell Branyan appears to be a good idea. His injury that ended the season may have been a blessing in disguise for Seattle as there is now a lesser chance that another team will go crazy in pursuing him. With Branyan back at firstbase, that leaves Mike Carp as the primary candidate to be DH. Is he ready? And if Branyan gets hurt again, will Carp be even passable at first? Assuming that Carlos Delgado is out of their price range, someone like Nick Johnson or Adam LaRoche seems to make sense, in which case they’d have to decide if they want production (Johnson) or durability (LaRoche).
They could also use an upgrade at second base, as Jose Lopez offers little offensively or defensively. If I were Seattle, I’d be leery of diving into the free agent market here as neither Orlando Hudson nor Felipe Lopez are ideal situations. Hudson could garner a deal longer than he deserves at his age and diminishing skills while Lopez isn’t a very good defensive option and had a very strong 2009, which makes him a candidate for being overvalued on the market. But what about trading for someone like the Cubs’ Mike Fontenot, who would be a good platoon partner for Lopez? This route would probably mean that they would have to clear a roster spot (probably Bill Hall), but it is a way for Seattle to make a run at a pitcher and DH with the available funds.
An offensive upgrade could also come from within, as Matt Tuiasosopo (say that five times fast) appears ready to take on a larger role with the team in 2010. Tuisosopo had a respectable line of .261/.368/.473 in AAA-Tacoma and while he’s learning how to play second base, it appears likely that he’s better suited to play a less demanding position at his size (6’2, 225lbs) and could be a better choice at third than the defensively gifted but offensively inept Jack Hannahan.
So while the Mariners have some funds to experiment, they still can’t compete with the big boys in terms of payroll – at least, not as long as they’re paying Carlos Silva. And they would be better off plugging a few holes with those funds than breaking the bank on a Matt Holliday. It’s not easy for an 85-win team to become a playoff contender. But the Mariners have a chance to do just that, so long as they take a chance on some risky names.