The 2011 Seattle Mariners (67-95) finished their first season with Eric Wedge as their coach, and finished a dismal 29 games out of first place. The good news for Mariners fans: they have almost no one guaranteed to come back next year. Of the 25-man roster they began the 2011 season with, there are only 6 with guaranteed contracts for 2012 (Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, Miguel Olivo, Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez, and Brendan Ryan).
Unfortunately for Mariners fans, even though you only have those 6 to deal with, they account for the equivalent of more than 2/3 of your entire payroll for 2011. However, I’m not convinced that just an $80 million payroll is all that a team in the Seattle market can do. There were 3 teams (Minnesota, St. Louis & Colorado) in smaller markets that were spending more than Seattle in 2011. I’m not saying they should double their payroll, but a reasonable increase to the $100 million range would put a much more competitive team on the field, and draw much larger crowds. Seattle is a good baseball city – they averaged better attendance per game than several teams that won much more than they did this season – and, if they win, their fans will show up in droves (they led the league in average attendance in ’01 & ’02, and were 2nd in ’03).
All that being said, there’s a chance they won’t have to spend a ton. There’s a massive youth movement in Seattle, and it’s talented youth. Talented enough that I would say they ought to consider getting rid of a couple stale contracts that are going to carry over into 2012. Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez are massively overpaid – something a team like Seattle shouldn’t be doing. (Technically, Ichiro is overpaid as well, but he’s a fan favorite, and has a contract that’s too big to move) Figgins is scheduled to make $9 million in 2012, and Gutierrez $5.5 million. Even if they had to eat some of those contracts, these two guys aren’t contributing enough to even bother keeping them around. So, I say get what you can in a trade for them, and be done with it.
Now, as for the aforementioned prospects and/or youth, the Mariners had 3 of the top 50 prospects in all of the minors heading into 2011. However, two of those are so young that they aren’t expected to be in the majors for at least another year or two beyond 2012. But, of their top 10 prospects in the minors, the Mariners ended their season with 5 on their major league roster, including Johermyn Chavez (RF), Dan Cortes (RHP), Trayvon Robinson (LF), Maruicio Robles (LHP), and Alex Liddi (3B). Their top prospect, Nick Franklin (a switch-hitting SS), could be worth considering for 2012, but with Brendan Ryan performing fairly well (and at a reasonable $1.75 million price for 2012), one more year of developing in the minors certainly won’t hurt Franklin, since he’ll just be 21 years old.
Pitching was NOT the problem in Seattle in 2011. While there is room for improvement, their team ERA was just 3.90 (within 0.20 of playoff teams AZ, TEX, STL, and NYY – and 0.14 better than DET). And, when you have a legit ace at the top like Hernandez, it can boost the rest of the rotation. Michael Pineda pitched very well for Seattle, with just a 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and .211 league avg. against. Picking him up again would be wise, and cheap (just $414K in 2011 – so, maybe $2-3 million over the next couple years?). Jason Vargas is a fine #3 starter, and his $2-2.5 million price tag isn’t unreasonable. If you plug in the previously mentioned Robles in the #4 or #5 spot, then you’ve got a nice rotation. But, to go from nice to one of the top rotations in the AL, you would need to add one of the possible #2 starters that may be on the free agent market this off-season (Edwin Jackson – $6 million, Hiroki Kuroda – $10 million, Paul Maholm – $8 million, or C.J. Wilson – $8-10 million).
Brandon League established himself as a reliable closer, while Jamey Wright, and Tom Wilhelmsen performed very well in relief. Adding the rookie Cortes to that mix (and the possibility of Robles if he doesn’t work out as a starter), and you’re really only a couple additions away from being set. And, it doesn’t have to be very high-priced players either – just decent innings-eaters for middle-relief circumstances.
With my recommended moves, I would say the payroll is hanging around $65 million thus far for 2012. But, now we’re to the point that we need to address the real problem in Seattle – offense. Seattle’s offense scored the fewest runs in all of baseball in 2011, and ranked last in hits, avg., and OPS. They were also next-to-last in the AL in home runs. So, let’s start with the outfield – Ichiro is in place, so if Gutierrez is gone they need help in CF and LF. The good news is they have 2 promising young guys that could take care of LF – Mike Carp & Trayvon Robinson. Carp looks to be a 20+ HR, and 90+ RBI kind of player, while Robinson may develop into a little more than that. Either one would also likely be very cheap. As for CF, it’s a little more unstable. Robinson has the speed to cover that kind of ground, but he committed 3 errors in just 16 games in CF in 2011. One option, if they wanted to go with one big signing that could shore up this offense and give some veteran leadership among all these young guys, would be to sign Carlos Beltran. I’m not sure what kind of contract he’ll be looking for, but a 3-year deal for around $15 million per year wouldn’t break the bank in Seattle. Of course, the question would be whether or not he would stay healthy – but, if he does, his .900+ OPS would be especially helpful in 2012. But, I could also see an outfield of Ichiro, Carp & Robinson, if they were then willing to spend some money on the infield – particularly to bring in someone with some pop.
And, speaking of the infield, they seem set at SS with either Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, or possibly the rookie, Nick Franklin. 2B also seems to be in good shape, as Dustin Ackley was one of Seattle’s best offensive weapons the last half of 2011. His fielding is still a little raw, but he’s just 23, so that will improve with time. Mariner fans should also be excited about Alex Liddi at 3B, who had 30 HR and 104 RBI in AAA Tacoma in 2011. He’s young, and very raw, but could be an excellent hitting third baseman for many years to come. And, for 2012, 3B isn’t exactly overflowing with free agent gems. Miguel Olivo played reasonably well in 2011, and could be their primary catcher for two more seasons, if Seattle picks up the $3 million option for 2013. So, that leaves us with 1B. Justin Smoak, who was once a highly touted prospect in Texas, played 123 games in Seattle in 2011, and finished the season with just a .719 OPS. Not what you want at that position. And, there is a plethora of options at first base in the free agent market. Who do you want – Russell Branyan (who played well in Seattle in ’09) for maybe $1 million? Jorge Cantu for about the same price? Brad Hawpe for around $4-5 million? Or, do you really want to be daring, and go for one of the big-time sluggers in Fielder or Pujols?? If Seattle were to try, I’d go for Fielder because he’s cheaper and younger. A 7-8-year deal for Fielder means you’ve essentially signed him for the prime of his career (he’s just now 27). And, at $20-25 million per year, he’d be worth every penny to a young team like Seattle.
Obviously, Seattle wouldn’t go after both Carlos Beltran and Prince Fielder. But, sign just one of them, and your team’s offense just took a major step forward for 2012. Mariners fans would be ecstatic to see a lineup of Ichiro, Robinson, Fielder, Carp, Liddi, Olivo, Ackley, Ryan, and Seager (or another DH). And, that could happen, as well as picking up a solid #2 starter, all for around a $90-100 million payroll.