Hot Stove Report Card: M's Failing

A friend of mine once said that the best way to build a baseball team is to "maximize the value of the farm system and stay as far away from the bad contract as possible."

In theory, this means that the clubs that are capable of filling holes with quality, ready-to-contribute prospects while adding only near surefire free agents to contracts the franchise can ultimately absorb are both doing things right and the most likely to climb to the top of their divisions.

Have the Seattle Mariners done either of these two things this winter?

No, they haven't. And sadly, they really haven't even come close.

Free-agent catcher Kenji Johjima is far from a sure thing, and though his contract is no albatross, it certainly limits what the club can do at the position if he fails. If Johjima pulls a "Kazuo Matsui" and is a miserably smudged fascimile of the player he has been in Japan, the M's are stuck waiting for Jeff Clement and Rob Johnson to develop their games unto the big-league level. Something that could take as many as two or three more seasons.

Was it a good move? I don't know. The word "good" might be a little strong. I'd call it a decent risk with a nice upside. And because the contract isn't awful, the hazard of heading into the 2006 season with an unproven catcher who speaks very little english – and zero spanish – and whose skills may or may not translate fully in Major League Baseball, is a chance the Mariners needed to take.

Grade: B

Adding Carl Everett as the "left-handed sock" makes me wonder if Bill Bavasi was shopping in the men's underwear corner at his local Target Superstore rather than the accessories department at Saks Fifth Avenue, or the personal shopper's unit at Nordstrom.

If Everett repeats his performance of 2005, he's probably an average DH, at best, and may come close to earning the guaranteed money in his contract.

But since 2000, Everett has gone from being a volatile component in a clubhouse – but an athletic defender in center field – to a complete non-factor with the glove and a somewhat positive influence in the locker room, as he was a year ago with the World Champion White Sox.

Because of the ramifications of the Everett signing, most notably the idea of Raul Ibanez and his average at best defense becoming the regular left fielder, the signing receives a failing grade.

Labeling the transaction as awful is a bit much, but it lacks the shine the club needed to put on its offense.

Grade: D+

Adding Matt Lawton was a solid move for the M's, especially considering the effect, or lack thereof, it had on the club's payroll for 2006.

Lawton is still a capable bat with decent enough defensive skills to play a positive role on the 25-man roster, including the starting left field job for as many as two days a week.

At 34, Lawton serves as a veteran left-handed bat off the bench who can play either corner outfield spot and swipe a base.

Grade: B+

The signing of Jarrod Washburn isn't the problem. He's a capable left-hander with playoff experience who still has a year or two left in his prime.

So why wouldn't this move receive a positive grade? I can think of $37.5 million reasons why.

This is the kind of contract that could prevent the Mariners from adding a necessary piece of the puzzle over the next few years.

I'm not terribly disappointed that the club failed to sign A.J. Burnett or Kevin Millwood. Neither pitcher is a safe bet to do anything that reflects the contracts in which they signed.

But if there's anyone out there that prefers the four-year contract the M's gave the 31-year-old former Los Angeles Angels southpaw over the deals handed to Millwood or Burnett, I have a boat for sale, and it only has one hole in the bottom. (It's a six-foot gauge on a nine-foot ship named "Minnow")

Expecting Washburn to perform to the level of his contract is foolish. Almost as foolish as offering him the deal in the first place.

The only reason why this move does not receive an F is because it does give the rotation a reliable starter that can take some pressure off the young bullpen and the rest of the starting five. The M's need all the aid they can get.

Grade: D

Minor Deals

The Mariners have been quiet on the international front, having not made a single signing of note all winter. They did add Kuo-hui Lo last summer, however. Lo is a slugging corner outfielder from Taiwan and is expected to break into the U.S. in 2006 after working with the club in the instructional league's this past fall.

Bavasi did add to the minor league system with the trade of catcher Yorvit Torrealba – which may end up as a sensational move.

Nabbing right-hander Marcos Carvajal and southpaw Luis Gonzalez for a backup catcher is a solid haul by the M's.

Carvajal is likely to head back to the minors as a starting pitcher, perhaps in Double-A San Antonio, while Gonzalez will battle fellow lefty Matt Thornton for the final spot in the bullpen.

Gonzalez was a Rule 5 selection by the Colorado Rockies from the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization. If the 23-year-old does not make the club, he must be offered back to the Dodgers for a small fee.

If Carvajal qualified, he'd certainly rank as one of the top 10 prospects in the farm system.

Grade: B

Overall

The Mariners began the winter with two goals. 1) Add a frontline starting pitcher to lead the staff that was leaning on 43-year-old Jamie Moyer and the soon-to-be 20-year-old Felix Hernandez, and; 2) obtain a middle-of-the-order lefty bat to place in the third, fourth or fifth spot in the batting order.

Umm, what's the polar opposite of mission accomplished?

"Mission Misinterpreted?"

"Mission... what mission?"

Jarrod Washburn and Carl Everett were the answers for Bill Bavasi this offseason. And as someone yelled to me shortly after the deals went down, "If those two are the answers, the questions were being asked of the wrong people."

The Mariners had a chance to greatly improve this winter. Instead, they improved marginally and paid dearly to do so.

While fans will still head into the season with some hope that everything goes right and the club is 15 wins better than a year ago, they'll be leaning on one notion, and leaning quite heavily.

The Seattle Mariners improved their 25-man roster more in July and August of 2005 than they did during the entire winter. And when that improvement includes the Wunderkind, there's always a chance for something special.

The bad news is that the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A's and Texas Rangers are still better than the Emerald City Nine.

Overall Hot Stove Grade: D+

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