Thursday, June 17, 2010

MARINERS COLUMN: Let's Talk Trades, Part 3: What to do now?

By: Jacson Bevens

After last night’s win, the M’s have just “improved” to 25-41. Sure, the Mariners could get hot and make it interesting, but they'd have to win 68% of their games from here on out to have a reasonable shot at taking the division. To give you an idea of how unlikely that is, consider that the best team in baseball right now is winning 63% of their games.

To Continue...

The focus must shift to 2011 and beyond. It sucks to say that in the middle of June, but here we are. Poor hitting, bad base-running, questionable (at best) managing, and an imploding bullpen have heavily outweighed the positive contributions from Ichiro, Gutierrez, Lee, Hernandez, Vargas, and Fister. To be honest, we as fans probably sat down at the table this season with inflated hopes. The Mariners posted an improbable (fluky) 85 wins last year and, as is always the case when a team shows major improvement, the team was expected to at least continue that level of win production, if not exceed it.

Instead, the Mariners acquisitions have performed like duds (St. Cliff obviously excluded) and the M's are looking at not only a 97-game death march to the end of the season, but are facing a stark realization that the cupboards are far more bare than they would have admitted on Opening Day. For most teams in this position, there can at least be some excitement generated by the chance to see how some hotshot prospects perform at the big league level, but Seattle lacks even that right now, as most of their minor league talent is currently at the AA level or below. I mean, I like Michael Saunders as much as the next guy, but when he's headlining the class of AAA call-ups, you know you're in a dry place as an organization. Forgive me for not getting tingles about Matt Tuiasusopo and Adam Moore.

The recent trend among fans is to start blaming Jack Zdurenciek for getting us into this mess. After all, this is the team that he put together, right? Well, kind of. Yes, he's made a lot of moves in the year and a half that he's been at the helm, and yes, the current lineups are comprised mostly of players that he's brought in; but keep in mind that the team he took over was not only 61-101 the previous season, they were 61-101 with a minor league system stripped bare by an overzealous general manager who valued "grit" over talent and stubbornly continued to acquire washed up role players at All-Star prices. The fact that the M's won 85 games last year may have done more damage than good to Jack Z, as expectations were raised beyond what should be considered reasonable and dreams of a division championship clouded the view of a roster pocked by marginal Major League talent.

Some will point to the pickups of Ian Snell, Jack Wilson, Casey Kotchman, and Milton Bradley and call them busts. They may be right about Wilson and Bradley, and are certainly right about Snell and Kotchman, but the difference between Zdurenciek's busts and Bavasi's busts are that Z's are all short-term, low-investment busts. You won't find Jack signing Carlos Silva to a 4 year, $48 million contract, or Miguel Batista for $9 million a year, or Jeff Weaver for $8 million, or trade Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez, or bring in Jose Vidro, or overpay Richie Sexson, or … damnit I can't keep this list going because it makes my heart hurt, and you guys get the point anyway. No, Zdurenciek understands that it's not an overnight fix and the risks he took to keep the team competetive as he rebuilt the system through the draft were small and not future-crippling if they didn't pan out.

So the question becomes: what to do now? The M's have to stay true to their long-term vision and that means raising the white flag for 2010. In order to continue building an infrastructure that lends itself to sustained success, they will have to jettison what little tradable talent they have as well as as much dead weight as they can. The obvious centerpiece of any mid-season action the Mariners will be involved in is Cliff Lee. The case can be strongly made that he's had the best season of anyone in the world not named Ubaldo. Toss in the fact that, unlike Jiminez, he has an extensive track record of stratospheric performance, he becomes the most desirable trade piece in the Majors, and that includes one Adrian Gonzalas.

Lee will command a high price and the demand for him may cause a bidding war that increases his market value. This gives the Mariners three main options (I'm writing off signing Lee to an extension):

1.) Hang on to him for the rest of the season and receive two top-50 draft picks as compensation when he leaves as a Type-A free agent

2.) Hang on to him until the trade deadline on July 31st and deal him for the best offer available at the last minute

3.) Trade him as soon as possible to maximize his value to his new team (he'd make more starts for them this season) and use that as leverage to acquire a better return package.

Selfishly, I'd like to see the M's keep Cliff the Magnificent (Mag-Cliff-icent?) through July before dealing him, just so I can watch him pitch as a Mariner a few more glorious times, but I think that it might be smartest to deal him sooner rather than later. Cliff Lee has more value over 16-18 starts than he does over 10-11, so it stands to reason that he can net more in a trade now than he will in six weeks. The counter-argument is that frenzied competition for his services at the deadline will drive his price higher, but my thought is that teams are already putting together packages to offer the Mariners and that by pitting those offers against each other, Jack Z can induce the deadline frenzy long before July 31st.

As far as who the Mariners should be targeting, well, there are quite a few holes to fill. The M's need Major League-ready talent at starting pitcher, catcher, first base, second base (soon), and back-of-the-bullpen. Lee won't bring in all of those pieces, but he's far and away Seattle's best chance to fill most of them. Beyond Lee, well...

Beyond Cliff Lee, the Mariners are like that kid in the cafeteria who wants to trade for pudding snacks but only has carrot sticks and and un-grilled cheese sandwich on rye bread to offer. The season-ending injury to Mark Lowe, regression of David Aardsma, and overall offensive suckitude of Jose Lopez, have left the M's with very few (if any) viable trade pieces. It might be nice, as some have suggested, if the Mariners started a "fire sale" and emptied out the chaff from their roster beyond Ichiro, Hernandez, and Gutierrez but that theory only works in a world where the pieces the Mariners are looking to unload are considered desirable by someone else.

On a brighter note, however, the current front office has shown much more interest and attention to the minor league system and is systematically replenishing it with high-ceiling prospects that show real promise of being impact Major Leaguers in a few years. I say that the Mariners trade Lee soon and use the rest of the year to showcase the talent they get in return and, beyond that, button down the hatches until future studs Dustin Ackley, Carlos Triunfel, and Michael Pineda are ready to help usher in a new era of consistency and promise to the franchise.

And even though this season is a lost cause, keep in mind that Zdurenciek is not only rebuilding right now, he's doing it with 70% of the payroll that Bavasi had to work with before him. Also, take advantage of every opportunity you get to watch Cliff Lee before we trade him -- he is everything coaches should teach their players to emulate and he's freaking adorable to boot. It's going to be interesting to see how the front office handles the next six weeks, so keep your ears low to the ground and, despite the current state of affairs on the field, trust the process and keep your eyes locked on the horizon before us.

Reach Jacson Bevens at