It is no secret that the Seattle Mariners are in desperate need of a winning season. Since they last appeared in the playoffs -- way back in 2001 -- the M's have lost the fourth most games in baseball with 1,040 and they've continually run out disappointing, under-talented teams which have led to a nearly 50% drop in attendance from that record tying 116-win campaign in 2001.
The American League has won six World Series Titles in that time and every other team in the American League West -- including the Houston Astros (albeit from their NL days) -- has made it to at least the League Championship Series. The Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays are the only two other AL teams that haven't reached the playoffs during those 12 years, and both of them still have better records since Seattle was turned over to Jack Zduriencik.
Losing in taking its toll not just at the gate, but also in the general popularity of and interest in the team. Seattle needs to have a winner on the field, and as a lame duck GM, Zduriencik needs it, too.
Seattle is in a somewhat new position this winter as the club negotiated a new regional sports network deal with DirecTV (ROOT Sports Northwest) back in April that is thought to at least double their annual take in broadcast rights fees starting in 2014. Seattle also has long-term contract money tied up in only two players -- pitchers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma -- for next season and is thought to be looking at approximately $45 million in committed payroll once arbitration is finished. Bottom line, they have a lot of payroll room to add players.
The popular website MLBTradeRumors came out with its Top-50 Free Agents and Predictions post over the weekend, and they seem to believe that the M's can be big spenders this winter. While there are a number of names on that Top-50 list that could make an impact in Seattle, we're going to look at the three players that are projected as signing in Seattle in that piece and try and figure out what their impact could be.
The first player on the list is the sexy name that everyone is craving in Seattle: Boston centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury, the No. 2 FA on the list, just completed his seventh season for the Red Sox by winning his second World Series. In his four relatively healthiest seasons, Ellsbury has posted fWAR totals of 4.1, 2.1, 9.1 and 5.8 -- good for an average of better than 5.0 a season. He made $9 million dollars for the Red Sox this past season and hit .298/.355/.426, leading the majors in steals with 52, collecting 48 extra base hits and posting very strong defensive numbers in center field. But outside of those four seasons in which he came to the plate at least 609 times, he also has an 84 plate appearance season and a 323 plate appearance season as he's been hit with devastating injuries on a couple of occasions.
To be fair to Ellsbury, the two major injuries shouldn't be anything that anyone sees as long-term risks as they were both of the freak accident variety. But still, extending an offer that could be upwards of $100 million in total value -- if you listen to his agent Scott Boras -- to any player usually leads teams to be cautious in regards to past health issues, and that hesitation could possibly work against a free-for-all bidding war for Jacoby's services. Another factor that could end up working against Ellsbury's market (and potentially in the Mariners' favor) is that Boston will be extending him a qualifying offer, meaning that any team who signs Ellsbury and does not have one of the first 10 picks in the 2014 MLB Draft will surrender that pick. The Mariners are set to pick sixth overall in 2014, so their pick is protected.
Will ownership allow Zduriencik to offer enough to land Ellsbury? Will Zduriencik feel comfortable to bid enough in terms of number of years? Would Ellsbury even want to come to a struggling team like Seattle? Are those Northwest ties enough to make any difference?
Those are all questions that you could definitely consider as working against the Mariners in their pursuit of Ellsbury.
The next player on the list that is written up as coming to Seattle is Kendrys Morales. Morales, No. 28 on the Top-50 list, played with the Mariners this past season after coming over in a swap with the Angels for pitcher Jason Vargas. He was arguably Seattle's best offensive player in 2013, posting a .277/.336/.449 slash in a career high 156 games or the Mariners while serving as their regular cleanup hitter. He had a somewhat surprisingly strong season versus left-handed pitching (.282/.353/.440) and reached the second highest totals of his career in nearly every substantial offensive statistical category in his age 30 season. He, too, is a Scott Boroas client and will also be extended a qualifying offer.
Unlike Ellsbury, though, Morales is very limited defensively and is best suited in the American League were he can serve as a DH. That limits his market considerably. Add in the compensation and it isn't unreasonable to think that Morales could be sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and eventually just fall back into the Mariners' laps at a reasonable figure. Kendrys also has a devastating injury in his past -- one suffered in a game against the Mariners, actually -- but his failed celebration/knee blowout isn't something that figures to be recurring. Do the Mariners want him back, though? They have Justin Smoak on the big league roster at first base and have former highly touted prospect Jesus Montero waiting in the minor league wings once again as a potential fit at designated hitter.
It is clear that Morales was a big reason that Seattle was able to score in 2013. But he is also a slow, station-to-station runner that doesn't seem to have 30-plus homer potential in his bat anymore. He's been about a 2.0 fWAR bat in his three fully healthy seasons. Will the Mariners want to tie up the big money required to retain him in what comes down to a slightly above average DH bat? And even if they do, will Morales want to come back to Seattle, where he would be playing for a new manager?
Montero's right-handed bat could help balance out the M's lineup if he's back on track after his lackluster performance and Biogenesis suspension. And at a much lower cost than Morales. But do the Mariners want to gamble on that, particularly in a season where the GM is definitely on the hot seat?
The third and final name from the Top-50 that MLBTR has headed to Seattle in right-hander Jason Hammel. While Hernandez and Iwakuma have the top of the Seattle rotation locked down and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton made huge impressions in September, the M's will likely need another arm for the rotation to open 2014. Hammel, No. 48 on the list, is another guy with Northwest ties, having graduated from South Kitsap high school in Port Orchard (yes, the same school as Willie Bloomquist) and drafted by Seattle (but not signed, obviously) in the 23rd round back in 2000. He's bounced around a bit in the big leagues and has had a couple of pretty major injuries, never having topped 180 innings in any of his eight big league seasons.
His most successful season was in 2012 with Baltimore when he finally kept the ball in the park at a decent rate and finally missed enough bats to match his stuff, but that is also a season that ended prematurely in knee surgery and soreness after just 20 starts. The big right-hander has a classic starter's four-pitch mix and got ground balls at a strong rate before 2013. He doesn't figure to be in high demand and could be somewhat of a bargain veteran guy, but will he be better than Joe Saunders was this past year?
Saunders put up very strong numbers and a surprisingly low HR/9 rate in his brief stay in Baltimore and had a much longer and stronger track record before signing with the Mariners last off-season, and his 2013 campaign turned into the worst ERA in the American League and easily the worst WHIP of his career. But Hammel has averaged around 2.4 fWAR over his five full seasons as a starter and could potentially benefit from moving to Safeco from Camden.
Ellsbury is clearly the jewel here and would be a huge get for Zduriencik, but the real question that comes to me from writing this piece is, would this type of free agency class in Seattle be enough? Could it turn Seattle into winners in 2014?
While these three could certainly aid an improvement, they couldn't do it all alone. As has been the case for the last several years, the answer to that question would lie more with the development of the young players already on the roster for Seattle. So while supplementing the club this winter via free agency is a must if Zduriencik has any hopes of keeping his job, if the Mariners want to get back to winning and back to drawing fans to the ballpark, much of the improvement is going to have to come from within.
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