Mariner fans frequently complain about players getting good after they leave the Mariners. Mike Morse, David Ortiz, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, all were Mariners who got traded and then became really good. Sometimes, the complaint is made somewhat tongue in cheek, but there’s always some honest frustration burning beneath the joke. There’s no avoiding the truth: there have been Mariners or Mariner prospects who only got good after they left town. It would be really nice to have them still in uniform. It would be nice to have anyone good in uniform.
The thing is that every team has these players. Some teams have less talent in their organizations, so few of the players contribute for any team. Some organizations are especially good at evaluating their talent and trade away or release fewer players who ultimately contribute somewhere. They keep the good guys for themselves, essentially. There are ways teams can minimize the talent they let go, but they will always have some players who become stars or solid players elsewhere.
I bring this up because the Mariners are shortly going to have to part ways with a lot of players who could eventually wind up in the category of players they want back.
Why, you ask? That’s just what happens when you have a team full of young players. The issue is roster limits. There are 25 guys on the major league roster, plus another 15 on the 40-man roster. Who has to be where gets a bit confusing, but here are the general guidelines (this may be common knowledge for some, so skip ahead if you want. I don’t really know who reads this and how much everyone knows. I’m a bit of a baseball management geek):
- Anyone on the 25-man roster has to be on the 40-man. That includes anyone on the 15-day disabled list, although guys on the 60-day DL enter roster purgatory and don’t count against the 40-man.
- Draftees and other minor league signees don’t have to be added to the 40-man for a while (about three or four years, depending). Eventually, though, every prospect has to be added to the 40-man or they are eligible for the Rule 5 draft, which happens every winter. This year, college players drafted in 2009 and high schoolers drafted in 2008 must be protected (ie, on the 40-man), although there are exceptions.
- The Rule 5 is weird, so I’ll give it it’s own bullet hole. Teams draft in order of worst to best, like usual, for two rounds I think (there’s also a minor league portion of the draft, but that’s even more confusing). A team can select any eligible player, but said player must stay on their 25-man roster all season, or else the drafting team has to offer him back to the original team. Lucas Luetge was a Rule 5 pick this year. Increasingly, teams are taking relievers or utility players, because everyone else is too unlikely to contribute enough to warrant a roster spot. Once in awhile, a star emerges from the Rule 5 (Josh Hamilton and Johan Santana most famously), but generally he’s a late bloomer or there were weird circumstances. Doesn’t happen often.
- Once on the 40-man roster, a player has three option years. These are years in which they spend time in the minor leagues, with some exceptions, of course. There are always some exceptions. Once all of those option years are used up, a player must be on the 25-man roster or else he will be exposed to waivers. In waivers, every team has a chance to claim him and add him to their 25-man. If no one claims him, he can go back to the minors or sometimes choose to become a free agent.
So, hopefully that’s slightly clearer and not more confusing. With all that in mind, it’s important to realize that the teams with a lot of talent throughout their systems are the teams that will lose more talent. A team with 60 players worthy of the 40-man roster can still only protect 40 players, the same as a team with only 35 worthy players. The same goes for players who are out of options. A bad major league team can keep a guy on the roster longer, waiting for him to develop, than a team that has a really talented major league roster. The teams with talent will lose more than the teams with less talent. It’s unavoidable. The system is set up so that teams have a chance to even out the talent ratio slightly and so that a good player isn’t buried behind ten better players in the same organization.
Every team has to make tough choices on who to keep in their organization. That’s where it becomes incredibly important to be good at scouting one’s own players. So far, the Zduriencik Mariners have been pretty good at this, but they haven’t had to make many tough calls yet. They’ve had a limited number of trades and haven’t had to make a lot of major roster decisions on young guys.
This year, the 40-man decisions aren’t terribly difficult. They should have enough room to add everyone they want to protect. They’ll do so within the next couple of weeks. If they decide to sign a bunch of free agents or shake up the team with big trades, it could get weird, but anyone they could lose will not likely be hugely important to their future. What will be more challenging will be deciding what to do with their minor leaguers who are out of options for the 2013 season. Off the top of my head, Mike Carp, Alex Liddi and Carlos Triunfel all will have to make the Mariners out of spring training or else have to clear waivers. They might be able to sneak Triunfel back to Tacoma, but the other two are almost guaranteed to go elsewhere if they aren’t Mariners. None of them are definitely worthy of a roster spot, but any of the three could develop into a solid player or even a star down the road. Or they might not. That’s the challenge of making these decisions.
I don’t see any way that all three of those players are in Seattle next April, which means that at least one of them will likely be playing elsewhere. My bet is that Liddi or Carp is traded this offseason, either as part of a package or for a lower level prospect who doesn’t have to go on the 40-man yet.
These types of moves will become more common as the big league club (hopefully) improves. Right now the Mariners have a slew of prospects who will end up somewhere in the infield. Liddi and Triunfel are two such guys, but more interesting are Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Stefen Romero, Jack Marder, and even Vinnie Catricala. All of these guys have second, third, or shortstop as their primary position, and the team is already trying them all at different positions so they can mix and match if they make it to majors. That’s five guys for three positions, or four if you throw in left field. That’s fine, because not all of them will turn out to be major league caliber. But then you throw in Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, and to a much lesser extent, Brendan Ryan. Now there are eight guys for three or four spots. There are still questions on Seager and Ackley, but if they both emerge in 2013 as solid big leaguers, what are the Mariners supposed to do with the other guys? They can’t just leave them in the minors forever, because of the roster and contract limits. That’s the point when good players get traded, hopefully for better players.
This post has gotten ridiculously long, so I’ll try to wrap it up here. I only really have two points here. One is that there is a lot going on below the surface of roster moves. It’s not solely about making the Mariners better. That’s the overarching goal, but to do so in the long-term means making some weird moves on occasion. It means keeping Alex Liddi on the roster so they don’t lose him, even though he might not be the best player for the spot currently. The Mariners have to look at a lot more than fans do. Running a whole baseball organization is a complicated process.
The second point is that, when lamenting those guys who got away, remember the circumstances. Take those four guys I listed in the beginning: Ortiz, Morse, Cabrera and Choo. Cabrera and Choo were lost to terrible trades, the infamous Cleveland double-DH swaps for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez. They weren’t terrible ideas at the time. It was just bad talent evaluation on everyone involved by the Mariners. There’s no defending those. Ortiz, however, was a Mariner so long ago that he went by David Arias. It took him time as nothing special with Minnesota before he ended up as an icon in Boston. There is no way the Mariners could have justified keeping him that long, and there’s no guarantee he would have turned out as he did anyway. More recently, Mike Morse was traded for Ryan Langerhans. At the time, Morse was far from a star, and he wasn’t even a particularly useful player. He was a backup infielder who was traded for a backup outfielder that the Mariners needed more at the time. It worked out badly, but again, Morse may never have blossomed without a move to a new city and new park.
There’s no getting around losing good players. The Mariners will do more of it as they get better, and that’s fine. What’s important is that the players they decide to hang onto become stars and major league contributors. They also need to do a better job of identifying some of those cast-offs from other teams that they can bring in and get production from. That’s been the main problem with the Mariners in this area. They’re letting go of good players but not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that will start to change this offseason.