Sitting here in the Orlando International Airport and trying to come up with words to describe what the Mariners did at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings the past four days.
Optimists might use words like cost-efficient, value-based and underrated.
Cynics might toss out words like unexciting, uninspiring, and unimproving (is that word? Well it is today).
And bitter pessimists might label the few moves that the Mariners made poor, dull, cheap, wastes of money, confusing, irritating or dumb.
Normally, I’m an angry cynic on my best days. But when it came to these moves, I guess I would use these two words to describe the Mariners moves: purposeful and expected.
Now let me be quick to point out that I did not expect the signing of Miguel Olivo to a 2-year, $7 million contract. At first, I was in disbelief, then confused and then borderline apoplectic. I knew the Mariners were going to add a catcher. I just wasn’t expecting Olivo, and I certainly would never have thought a two-year contract.
Meanwhile the signing of DH Jack Cust didn’t surprise me. And the rumored possibility of signing Laynce Nix didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
These were the only type of moves the Mariners could make. They couldn’t go out and get Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth or Cliff Lee. They couldn’t reasonably even compete for the likes of Adam Dunn, Adrian Beltre or Carl Pavano.
This is who the Mariners are right now. They are no longer a big payroll team. They aren’t a small payroll team. They are stuck in the middle and at that point, you still have to be smart with how you spend your money.
Don’t like it? Well, you can blame the ownership for not giving them more payroll. Or you can look at the group of Ichiro, Felix Hernandez, Milton Bradley, Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson and Franklin Gutierrez and see where the bulk of the payroll went to this season — $57 million of it.
Maybe the moves aren’t sexy and make you want to go to the ball park or buy season tickets, but they do make the Mariners somewhat better for next season. With the payroll limitations, they can only get better incrementally.
Do I think Jack Zduriencik is done making moves? No, not even close. He will try and trade Aardsma, Bradley and Figgins all the way up until the trade deadline. But lets take a look at the two moves we know he’s making and at the contract offer rumored to be out there.
He’s the prototypical fourth outfielder for a team. In fact that’s largely been his role for most of his career. Only in 2004, did he have 400 plate appearances. He has a career .243 batting average, .286 on-base percentage and .425 slugging percentage.
He hit 15 home runs in 2009 for the Reds. So he does have a little pop. He’s a capable base runner and defender. About the only surprising aspect of the Mariners looking into acquiring him is that he bats left-handed. The Mariners already have a left-handed hitting left fielder in Michael Saunders. So that would rule out a platoon situation. But then again, after seeing what happened to Adam Moore, Michael Saunders should be on high alert – if he wasn’t already. It’s clear that this regime is going to make young players earn starting jobs. And more importantly, perform and produce to keep them.
Contract: 1-year, $2.5 million.
I’m stealing this from Dave Cameron of USS Mariner, but in 53 percent of his 2,311 career plate appearances, Cust has either hit a homer (102), walked (400) or struck out (732).
Hence the nickname the “The Three True Outcomes”
Cust started last season in Triple A, but was called up and appeared in 112 games, hitting .242 with 13 homers and 52 RBI. He had 68 walks and 127 strikeouts.
He said he’s being brought in to be the every day DH. Obviously his career splits show that he’s not outstanding against left-handed pitchers, but they aren’t catastrophically bad.
Cust can be compared somewhat to Russell Branyan. He doesn’t have Branyan’s tape measure power, but he walks a little bit more and doesn’t have Branyan’s bad back either.
Over the past three seasons, Cust played in 409 games, and hit .245 with 71 homers and 199 RBI. He walked 227 times and struck out 509 times. He posted an on-base percentage of .373 and a .444 slugging percentage.
Over the same time period, Branyan played in 276 games and hit .243 with 68 homers and 153 RBIs. He had a .337 OBP and a .515 slugging.
One thing the Mariners cannot do is play Cust in the outfield more than a few times this season. It’s fine if you need him to do it in a pinch. But he can’t play two or three times a week out there. He has a career -22.3 UZR rating as an outfielder,.
You bring Cust in knowing he’s a DH, first and almost always. And he will be an upgrade at the position last year. Think about this: Mariners DHs combined to hit .194 (113-for-582) with 21 homers and 60 RBI and a tepid .269 on-base percentage and unacceptable .340 slugging percentage last season. And think about those numbers if you take away the 14 homers and 29 RBIs they got from Russell Branyan at that position.
Cust is an improvement at the position. Is he Edgar Martinez? Is he Vlad Guerrero? No. But he’s better than what the Mariners had last season.
And finally ….
Contract: 2-years, $7million
Look I’m not going to say I’m in favor of this signing. But I’m not ready call it awful or terrible. And some of the pure rage I’ve seen from Mariners fans about the move is a little overblown. It’s not giving up 5 players for one. It’s a free agent contract.
On the surface, it seems strange. Dig a little deeper and it seems odd. But if you look at it this way, you can see some of the thinking – the Mariners got little or no production from the position last season.
Last season, Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Josh Bard, Eliezer Alfonzo and Guillermo Quiroz all took turns behind the plate. As a group, they combined to hit .201 (109-for-541) with 10 homers and 42 RBI. The unit produced a .263 on-base percentage and a .303 slugging percentage with 43 walks, while striking out 146 times.
Olivo’s numbers over the last few years say he can put up better numbers than those five players produced. Does it mean more wins? Not necessarily.
Does his power translate to Safeco Field? It doesn’t seem to. Obviously, the last time he was with the Mariners, it went quite poorly.
If you are unfamiliar with his hitting approach, he is basically Jose Lopez. He looks for fast balls and tries to pull them to left. Always. He might even take wilder hacks than Lopez.
But obviously he’s improved as a player. His stats say that much. He’s not the same kid that was overwhelmed in Seattle in 2004 and 2005. He’s played over 500 games since then.
And Olivo is the starter. You sign a contract like that, you start. Also it’s a well known fact around baseball that if Olivo doesn’t play, he tends to pout. It’s why he isn’t back in Colorado. It’s one of the reasons why he isn’t in Kansas City, along with receiving struggles.
Does this mean that the Mariners have given up on Moore?
It might appear that way. But really, I think Jack Zduriencik looked at his catching depth – Adam Moore and Rob Johnson and no one else – and wasn’t satisfied and wasn’t going to accept that type of production from that position again this season. So he made a move to improve.
The question remains: How does Moore improve at the big league level if he doesn’t get to play?
Olivo is the starting catcher. Yes, Moore has minor league options. But he’s proven he can excel at the Triple A level. He hasn’t done that at the major league level. Of course, he has less than 300 at-bats.
So does he need to continue to play every day in Triple A, or does he sit behind Olivo and play once or twice a week?
It will be interesting how Zduriencik and Eric Wedge decide to make this work.
Of course, Moore could always get dealt as part of a package of players. But his value isn’t nearly as high as it was year or two ago.
To be honest, I understood the Cust signing, and I would understand the Nix signing. But it's tough to figure out the Olivo signing in terms of where they are going as a team, particularly with a two-year contract. But that being said, this is baseball and Olivo is clearly a better player than he was the first time in Seattle. And the Mariners took a struggling position and made it better - to what degree won't know.
And if he can provide some production, some power and some leadership from that position and help the Mariners win more games then Zduriencik will be justified. Would I be surprised if that happens? Not quite as surprised as when the Mariners signed him.