The Mariners Rebuilding is Getting Easier (Maybe)

The Mariners have spent more money this offseason than at any time in their history, and it’s not even close.  Robinson Cano’s $240 million is more money than the team had spent in the last 8 offseasons combined.  It doesn’t appear the team is done with the spending, either. There are rumblings they will heavily pursue Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka, who will command between $100-150 million.

The competition will be thick for Tanaka, but there are other options, should the Mariners decide to pursue them.  Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ervin Santana form a solid trio of free agent starters who should require less than half the money Tanaka will likely receive.  On offense, Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales are still on the market, and there are a number of possible trade targets. I expect the Mariners to add another impact player, as well as some filler for the bullpen, before spring training begins next month.

The Mariners sudden spending has received some skeptical and even negative reviews.  Some of that is justified.  Cano’s contract will likely be a bit of a burden toward the end of the deal, and the team once again has a bit of a logjam at the 1B/DH slots.

I think more of the consternation comes from the idea that the Mariners don’t know what they’re doing, however.  They’ve spent so long building with youth, many see the big free agent moves as desperation, an abandonment of a plan that wasn’t working.  I don’t know if the Mariners have any clue what they’re doing, but I don’t think the sudden spending is a sign of abandoning the youth movement.  I actually think it’s the next step in making the youth successful.

If Mariner fans have learned anything over the last five to ten season, it’s that young players frequently fail. Outside of Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager, there haven’t been many Mariner prospects who have come to Seattle and performed as hoped.  Some players have become decent contributors after a few seasons, but that only illustrates the other problem of a rebuild: prospects usually take a while to become players with which a team can win.

Those dual restraints, young players’ elongated timetables and frequent failure, are why so many teams rebuilding solely with youth never improve much.  There are just too many holes to fill, and if a player doesn’t improve into a solid starter, the team has wasted two or three seasons in the waiting.

What the Mariners hopefully did with the Cano signing and potentially another long-term deal or two, is remove some uncertainty. They now employ one of the best players in baseball at a position that was previously something of a question mark.  Add in the dependable Seager, and that’s two of the tougher positions to fill now ably manned.  If Brad Miller and Mike Zunino can solidify shortstop and catcher, respectively, the line-up is starting to look good for the future.  Maybe Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and/or Dustin Ackley move from mediocre to league-average or better.  Suddenly the team only has a a couple of positions that are question marks. Instead of relying on seven unestablished players, they’re only relying on two, which is much easier to focus on and fix.  And while they’re being fixed, the team is still getting production from the other spots.

There’s no guarantee any or all of those players will work out, but the point is that established performers are hugely important for rebuilding teams.  It’s the difference between buying furniture for a whole house versus just one room.  Not only is the cost so much higher for the whole house, it’s also overwhelming and harder to decide what to focus on. Some rooms (or positions) will not receive the same attention or resources.  Narrowing the scope to one room (or position) is much easier to deal with.

Establishing solid starters has one other benefit.  Eventually, those solid starters will need to be upgraded, or maybe replaced as they hit free agency.  When that time hits, the team can now focus their farm system on the trade market.  It’s hard to make trades when all of the prospects are needed to fill holes.  When there’s only one hole, it can either be filled with a prospect, or if that’s not possible, prospects can be moved in trade.  Nick Franklin a good current example of these benefits.  With Cano taking his starting spot, Franklin is now a great trade piece, or he could possibly be moved to the outfield to fill a hole there.  Prospects have no inherent value. They only exist to make the big league team better, whether by their own performance or by being used in a trade for someone else.  There’s no reason the Mariner farm system should get worse as the team gets better, unless there’s a change in the scouting department.  A strong farm system is the best way keep a competitive team good. It keeps payroll down and lets the team move on from aging starters before they begin to decline with a big salary.

Even as the Mariners improve, their prospects will still fail at fairly high rates. That’s just the way it works.  What free agent signings can do is relieve the sting of those failures. The team can be more patient with prospects, who won’t feel the pressure to be immediately successful and carry the team.  There’s no guarantee the Mariners will be successful with these moves, but anyone saying they don’t make the team immediately better or have benefits in a youth movement has too narrow a view of the situation.  Plus, Mariner fans now get to watch Robinson Cano, and no one should complain about that.

-Matthew

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