Mariners Offseason Analysis - Part I

Columnist Jared Poppel writes in to give his thoughts on the Mariners' offseason moves in the first part of a series of columns that will run in the coming weeks. In this one, Poppel goes over the players who came and those who left Seattle via free agency.

The 2004 season is nearly upon us, and in just a few short weeks the Mariners will launch their season with a day game at Safeco Field on April 6. Seattle is coming off what might be its busiest off-season ever, with at least a 36 percent turnover from last year's roster. With the team starting to take shape, now is a good time to look back at the M's winter and see how they put this year's team together. So, in the first of a series of columns, I will analyze Seattle's off-season moves - including trades, free agent signings, resigned players who had been on the team in 2003, and others who were let go.

Let me preface this column by saying that I have no "agenda" in this analysis, save for wanting the M's to get into the playoffs and win the World Series. THAT is the standard to which I am holding Messrs. Bavasi, Gillick, Lincoln and Armstrong. As a Mariners fan and charter season ticket holder, I can do no less, especially given the excitement surrounding many of the moves made.

I will be looking at the moves in the order in which they happened, because in some cases, one move directly affected the need for another move later on. I will not be assigning any kind of grade to each move. What I will do, however, is try to go through the thought process behind the team making each particular move, and whether or not it was the "right" thing to do, as far as the short-term and/or long-term plans for the M's. While the best objective way to measure an acquisition or re-signing of a player is to evaluate the performance on the field by that player, we won't be able to judge that until after the season… and I don't feel like waiting seven months!

Obviously, some people are going to disagree with my analyses - more than likely, members of the Mariners' front office personnel will be among them! After all, there are probably other moves that were planned that were never consummated (and also never made public), and hindsight is always 20/20. Nevertheless, I think that this is a useful exercise and one that will help us better understand the mindset of the team.

Let's start with the players who were allowed to leave via free agency: RP Armando Benitez, OF Mike Cameron, IF-OF John Mabry, IF-OF Mark McLemore, RP Arthur Rhodes and IF Rey Sanchez.

The Mariners had a total of nine players eligible for free agency after the 2003 season. Three of them were re-signed; the others were allowed to leave, or, in some cases, were shown the door.

There was little doubt that Benitez would not be back in a Seattle uniform this season. Benitez was traded to Seattle from the Yankees for disgruntled reliever Jeff Nelson. While he pitched decently for the M's, he also showed, on several occasions, that he is not capable of pitching well under pressure, a trait desperately needed in a relief pitcher and especially in a closer. With Kazuhiro Sasaki under contract (at the time) and Rafael Soriano in the team's long-term plans, Benitez was simply not needed. He signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract to be the closer for the Florida Marlins.

Mabry had performed well in a part-time role for Philadelphia and Oakland in 2002, bashing 11 HR in only 214 AB, but he didn't bring that part of his game to Seattle, hitting only .212 in 104 AB with just 3 HR. Mabry was supposed to be one-half of a fantastic bench combo with Greg Colbrunn; neither player worked out, and so Mabry was let go. He signed a minor-league contract with St. Louis. On March 20, he was re-assigned to their minor league camp, and will probably request his release to have an opportunity to catch on with another team.

McLemore was let go because Willie Bloomquist was ready and able to move into his role as the "super-sub". McLemore is just six months shy of his 40th birthday, and had a down year in 2003. All things pointed to a departure for McLemore. While "Mac" was a sentimental favorite among the Mariners' fans, not re-signing him allowed the Mariners to spend the $3.15 million he was paid in 2003 to fill other holes. He ended up signing a minor-league contract with Baltimore, and was expected to fill the same "super-sub" role for the Orioles that he did with Seattle. However, on March 19, McLemore suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. After surgery, he will miss 6-8 weeks.

I was very surprised that the Mariners did not try to re-sign Rey Sanchez. He came over in a trading deadline deal from the Mets to take over for the injured Carlos Guillen at shortstop, and played very well. So well, in fact, that when Guillen returned, he moved over to 3B to accommodate Sanchez in the lineup. He is a career .273 hitter and a very good fielder at both 2B and SS. He would have made an excellent bench player for the Mariners this season, but the team decided not to spend its money there (which may come back to haunt them). He signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay and is expected to be their Opening Day second baseman under former M's manager Lou Piniella. Of all the free agents let go, Sanchez is the one I think the M's should have at least made an effort to re-sign.

Arthur Rhodes was simply one of the best left-handed relievers the Mariners have ever had. He signed as a free agent with Seattle in 2000, but really broke out in 2001, appearing in 71 games, posting a 1.72 ERA, and winning eight games while losing none. He also had an outstanding 83/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. Rhodes came fairly close to duplicating those numbers in 2002, winning 10 games in 66 appearances, with a 2.34 ERA and an 81/13 K-to-BB ratio. However, in 2003, he suffered an ankle sprain midway through the season, and never revealed the severity of the injury until much later. His second half was nothing short of disastrous. He appeared in 28 games and could only watch as his ERA ballooned to 6.61 after the All-Star Break.

Rhodes made $3.5 million in 2003, and was looking for similar numbers in his next contract. Based on that, the Mariners made a tough decision to go in a different direction and allowed Rhodes to leave at the end of his 3-year contract. Rhodes then signed a three-year deal with division rival Oakland, and will be their closer to begin the 2004 season. Given that he has never been a closer before, it remains to be seen how long he will continue in that role for the A's.

The decision to not re-sign Mike Cameron was probably the hardest one for the Mariners' management, but it probably came down to one thing: his inability to hit at Safeco Field. Cameron, of course, was the centerpiece of the trade that sent superstar centerfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. to Cincinnati. He quickly made the Mariners fans forget about The Kid. There is no doubt that Cameron is one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball today; he is a two-time Gold Glove winner and was an asset to the Mariners' pitching staff by tracking down fly balls that many other outfielders couldn't even think of reaching. He could be counted on to produce at least three ESPN SportsCenter highlight catches each season. He was also a threat on the basepaths, stealing 106 bases in his four years with Seattle.

However, it was his hitting that stands as the primary reason that he won't be wearing a Mariners uniform in 2004. He showed steady progression through his first two years in Seattle, earning an All-Star berth in 2001 and finishing that season with 25 HR and 110 RBI, along with 34 stolen bases. However, he only hit .267 that year, the highest average he would ever achieve in Seattle. Cameron started off 2002 very strong, culminating in his record-tying 4-homer performance at Comiskey Park in Chicago on May 2. From that point on, though, his season went downhill, finishing with a .239 average, and he fared little better in 2003.

His main problem was his home-road hitting split. In 2002, Cameron hit a paltry .218 at home with only 7 HR and 31 RBI. Contrast that with a .258 road batting average and 18 HR and 49 RBI. Last season, Cameron hit .235 at Safeco Field, though he did hit 11 HR and drove in 39 runs. On the road, he hit .268 with 7 homers and 37 RBI. Point blank, as a right-handed hitter with moderate power, he struggled at Safeco Field. With the offensive fade of the past two seasons fresh in their minds, the members of the Mariners' front office made a conscious decision to improve the offensive output of the team. With Cameron's assets coming mostly on the defensive side, coupled with a fairly high salary demand, the decision was made to go in a different direction.

Cameron subsequently signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the New York Mets. They signed him with the intention of revamping and improving their defense up the middle, along with Japanese import SS Kazuo Matsui and phenom 2B Jose Reyes. With Shea Stadium being just as much a pitcher's park as Safeco Field, though, time will tell if New York was the best destination for Cameron.

Now we'll take a look at the signings, re-signings and trades the team made this off-season.

1) November 4: re-signed free agent DH Edgar Martinez to a one-year, $3 million contract, with incentives. I have some strong feelings about this one. Heck, I could probably write an entire column about this one move alone. Wait… I did! If you care to read the whole article, Click Here . The long and short of it is: Edgar should have retired.

While surely an unpopular view in Seattle, I stand by it, especially in light of the other moves the Mariners made (or didn't make) this off-season. I'll repeat some of my reasons later.

What was the thought process behind bringing Edgar back for 2004? First of all, Edgar can still hit effectively as a major league player. The fact that he posted the fourth-highest on-base percentage in the American League in 2003 is proof of this. While he isn't a huge power threat anymore, he can still knock 20-25 balls out of the park and probably drive in close to 90 runs.

Edgar also stands on the brink of two very big career milestones: he is only three home runs shy of 300 and only nine doubles away from 500. These are significant numbers, potentially Hall-of-Fame worthy. He will probably achieve those goals within the first six weeks of the 2004 season.

In addition, the Mariners were able to sign Edgar to a one-year contract relatively low base salary ($3 million), but with $4 million in incentives based on plate appearances. With Edgar approaching his 41st birthday and his growing propensity for injuries, this type of contract mitigates the risk of Edgar getting hurt by allowing them to use part of that contract to get offensive help in that event.

However, I think that the biggest reason for re-signing Edgar for another year is his public relations value to the Mariners. He is one of the most beloved sports figures in Seattle, having spent his entire career to date with the Mariners. That kind of loyalty is rarely seen in sports these days, from either players or teams. He is also one of the most popular players on the Mariners. His merchandise is still among the top-sellers for Seattle. In addition, the Mariners recently debuted their new 2004 commercial campaign, and asked fans to vote on their favorite; the one featuring Edgar won, doing so by a wide margin. All I can say is: Edgar and the Clapper… funny stuff!

At the end of the day, however, I think that re-signing Edgar Martinez may well hurt the Mariners this year. The team desperately needed a left-handed power bat, and there was a very good one available: Rafael Palmeiro. In fact, not only is Palmeiro a good left-handed power hitter, he is one of the best left-handed hitters ever. He has hit at least 38 HR and driven in at least 104 runs in each of the past nine seasons. He is also VERY fond of Safeco Field, having hit 16 HR there in the four-and-a-half year history of the ballpark. Palmeiro is also poised to reach two significant milestones sometime in the 2005 season: 600 HR and 3,000 hits. He should definitely end up in Cooperstown. Once Edgar re-signed as the DH and with John Olerud under contract for the 2004 season, however, there simply was no place for Palmeiro on the roster. Instead, the M's signed OF Raul Ibanez, whose average offensive production has not been anywhere near that of Palmeiro. In taking a microeconomic view of the situation, the "opportunity cost" of re-signing Edgar Martinez was losing the ability to sign Rafael Palmeiro.

Edgar also cannot field and cannot run the bases at this point in his career. The former of these problems hampers lineup flexibility, since no one projected to be on the bench this season can even approach Edgar's production. It also means that no one else can take a day "off" by resting in the DH spot without losing offensive output. The loss of Cameron as a speed threat in the middle of the order further compounds the latter problem for the Mariners. If Ichiro Suzuki, Randy Winn and Bret Boone take up the top three spots in the batting order, then all of the Mariners' speed will be at the top of the lineup, as opposed to spreading it throughout. Edgar is projected to hit fifth in the M's lineup, so if Boone and Ibanez do their jobs in the 3 and 4 spots, it will be very unlikely that Edgar will have much speed on the bases in front of him, and there will not be much, if any, speed in the lineup behind him. Successfully executing a hit-and-run play with the middle or back-end of the batting order will be a difficult task.

I also should point out that Edgar was re-signed three days prior to the naming of Bill Bavasi as the general manager for the Mariners. The push to re-sign Edgar came mostly from out-going GM Pat Gillick, team president Chuck Armstrong and team CEO Howard Lincoln. So, for all the criticisms I have heard of Bavasi's performance, we can't credit or blame him for this deal. However, I will give the Mariners credit for structuring the contract in such a way that if Edgar gets hurt, the M's will have up to $4 million to acquire another power bat for the lineup. Otherwise, I'll stick with my original contention that this will probably end up being a mistake which will hurt the Mariners' playoff chances this year.

2) November 19: signed free agent OF Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $13.25 million contract.

As I noted above, with Rafael Palmeiro no longer an option after the re-signing of Edgar Martinez, and the Mariners still desperately in need of a left-handed power hitter, the best choice in the free agent market was Raul Ibanez. Ibanez was a Mariners farmhand who never got the opportunity to break into the lineup, only amassing 478 AB over five seasons in Seattle. He received extended playing time in 1999, responding with 9 HR and 27 RBI in 209 AB. However, he was released after the 2000 season and then signed a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals. In KC, he was finally given the chance to be a regular, and came up with three very solid seasons in KC. He hit 13, 24 and 18 HR, respectively over the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons, driving in 247 runs over that period. Some may attribute his success to the hitter-friendly dimensions of Ewing Kauffman Stadium, though it should be noted that Ibanez has hit .406 with 5 HR and 12 RBI in 9 games at Safeco Field over the past two seasons.

While the Mariners were looking for (and needed) a bona fide "bopper" for the lineup, they weren't looking to break the bank for one. The M's also made the decision to sign a free agent rather than give up prospects for one of the many left-handed hitters available in trade at the time (Carlos Beltran, Geoff Jenkins, Ken Griffey, Jr.) Ibanez fit the bill: a left-handed hitter with moderate power who wouldn't be too expensive. His contract is about market-average for a player with his statistics. Ibanez's salary will be $3.25 million in 2004, $3.75 million in 2005 and $4.25 million in 2006. He also received a $2 million signing bonus.

The Mariners did have to give up an amateur draft pick to the Royals as compensation for signing Ibanez, though, because they did not wait for KC to make the decision as to whether or not they were going to offer him arbitration. If the Mariners had waited until after December 7 and the Royals had not offered Ibanez arbitration (which was the likely scenario), then the Mariners would not have had to cede this draft pick.

There are many questions with Ibanez, now 31, heading into the season. Can he continue his hitting success at Safeco Field over an entire season? Manager Bob Melvin recently announced that Ibanez would take over in the cleanup spot in the lineup, increasing his importance to the lineup. Will his run production make up for the loss of Mike Cameron's speed, since effectively Ibanez was signed to replace Cameron? Will the move of Randy Winn to CF to accommodate Ibanez in LF adversely affect the Mariners' outfield defense, which had been considered to be one of the best in baseball in 2003? Ibanez's performance will have a profound effect on Seattle's playoff chances this year, probably more so than any other new Mariner.

This is a move that could go either way for the Mariners. If Ibanez produces like he did in Kansas City, Bill Bavasi will look like a genius. If Ibanez doesn't produce and is signed for two more seasons, then he will be wearing the goat's horns.

While there might be some fall-off in Ibanez's overall production due to the change in ballparks, I think that he will be a solid but not spectacular player for the Mariners, probably hitting 15-20 HR and driving in 90-100 runs from the middle of the Seattle order. He should be a relatively good player; he's just not what the Mariners needed.

3) December 7: re-signed free agent P Shigetoshi Hasegawa to a two-year, $6.3 million contract, plus an option year.

Well, you'll hear no complaints from me on this one. Hasegawa may well have been the Mariners' MVP in 2003. Starting out in a middle-to-long relief role, "Shiggy" was pressed into service as the team's closer after Kazuhiro Sasaki suffered a freak injury carrying his luggage. He responded by converting 16 of 17 save chances, and posting an outrageous 1.48 ERA for the season. With Jeff Nelson traded away, Arthur Rhodes allowed to leave via free agency, and the health of incumbent (at the time) closer Kazuhiro Sasaki an issue, the vaunted Seattle bullpen, long considered one of the team's greatest strengths, was looking vulnerable. It was important for the team to re-sign Shiggy to complement and back up Sasaki, and allow Rafael Soriano and Julio Mateo time to continue to grow and improve in their roles.

At the time of his signing, Hasegawa was pegged to return to his original role as a middle-to-long reliever, but be the backup closer in the event anything happened to Sasaki. Given his statistics and value to the team, I believe that the Mariners are paying Hasegawa fair market value for his services. He received a $500,000 signing bonus and salaries of $2.5 million in 2004 and $2.975 million in 2005. The team has a $3.1 million option for 2006, which becomes guaranteed if he appears in 58 games or finishes 45 games in 2005; if he doesn't, the team has a $325,000 buyout. There are also bonuses for games finished, which could add an additional $2.7 million to the contract.

After the fact, re-signing Hasegawa was even more important than the Mariners had expected, since Sasaki decided to forego his contract and leave for Japan. Hasegawa will still serve as the backup closer, but it will instead be for Eddie Guardado. In addition, his presence in the bullpen offers more than just experience, but much-needed continuity as well, since at least three out of the six relievers will be new to the team this year. So thumbs up on this move!

4) December 9: signed free agent P Eddie Guardado to a one-year, $4 million contract with two option years.

The Mariners didn't waste any time in replacing Arthur Rhodes. They went right out and signed possibly the best left-handed relief pitcher on the free agent market. "Everyday Eddie" was coming off his second full season as the closer for the Minnesota Twins, converting 41 out of 45 save opportunities and posting a 2.89 ERA for the 2003 season. However, as one of the small market teams, Minnesota had some difficult choices to make after the season. In addition to Guardado, they let LaTroy Hawkins jump to the Chicago Cubs, leaving their bullpen in disarray.

But, the Mariners didn't sign Guardado to be their closer. At least, not initially. For 2004, his role was to be the primary lefty out of the bullpen, a role in which Rhodes had excelled for most of his Mariners tenure. His $2.5 million base salary for this season was also indicative that he was going to be more of a setup man. He did receive a $1.5 million signing bonus, so he will get paid at least $4 million for 2004 in all. In addition, Kazuhiro Sasaki was under contract to the Mariners for 2004 with a base salary of $8 million, as well as $500,000 in incentive clauses. So Guardado was signed mainly to maintain the Mariner bullpen's status as one of the best in the game.

In addition, speculation was rampant at the time that signing Guardado would allow the Mariners to move Rafael Soriano into the starting rotation and pursue opportunities to trade starter Freddy Garcia for some much-needed offensive help.

However, based on the unique option years of his contract, it seemed inevitable that Guardado would take over as the M's closer in 2005. The options are unique in that BOTH the club and the player have options. If the Mariners pick up Guardado's option for 2005, they will pay him $6.5 million. If they do not, then Guardado has an option for $4.5 million or he can opt for free agency. The same applies for 2006, except that the M's option is for $7 million. There are also incentive clauses in the contract for games finished, which definitely left the door open for Guardado to become the closer. In addition, it was becoming clear that after this season, the Mariners were going to pay Sasaki a $1 million buyout and let him go rather than pick up his $8 million option for 2005.

However, six weeks later, Guardado's signing proved very fortuitous, because Kazuhiro Sasaki announced his intention to leave the Mariners and return home to Japan for family-related reasons. So Guardado will assume the closer's role a year earlier than had been planned. Or is that really the case? Did the Mariners know all along that Sasaki would leave the team, and signed Guardado to his unique contract knowing that they would be getting a relatively inexpensive top-drawer closer? If so, it was a brilliant move. But even if not, signing Guardado was the right move for the stated reasons at the time, and even more so given Sasaki's decision.

However, it should be noted that the Mariners gave up a first-round amateur draft pick to sign Guardado, which, combined with the signing of Raul Ibanez, means that the Mariners don't have a pick in this year's draft until the third round. While the M's farm system boasts some excellent pitching prospects, it comes up a bit short on position prospects, meaning that the loss of these draft picks could hurt the team a few years down the road.

Well, we're off to a good start - four signings, six players let go. And we're not even close to halfway done analyzing the M's offseason moves. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more columns that will continue to analyze the M's moves this winter.

Jared enjoys reading your feedback at marinersinsider@yahoo.com.

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