Monday, June 27, 2005

Crystal Balls

June is rapidly riding off into the sunset. With it go any last, lingering, hopes we Mariners fans had of enjoying a winning season in 2005.

Not to worry. We have all known that last place and a miserable season were likely outcomes. More important, we said, was to use this season to develop the next contending Seattle Mariners team.

How have we done on that score? While we've recently ruminated about the 2006 lineup, is next season really going to be the payoff? I would have to suggest that "no" is the correct answer to that question.

Why not? I'm afraid that I have little faith in the ability of Bavasi, etc., to spend their free cash effectively in the offseason. I also see precious few above-average prospects on the farm, so if we can't rebuild via free agency, we also cannot hope to do so internally, despite the presence of such top-notch quality youngsters as Felix Hernandez.

It is likely that our likely 2006-08 lineup (while we still have Sexy, Beltre, and Ichiro under contract) involves several gambles on youngsters lacking in experience and/or talent:

C Miguel Olivo
1b Rich Sexson
2b Jose Lopez
ss Michael Morse
3b Adrian Beltre
lf Chris Snelling
cf Jeremy Reed
rf Ichiro Suzuki
dh Raul Ibanez (2006 only)

By my count, that's 3 above-average players, surrounded by 1 slightly-below average player and 5 easy outs who at least have the merit of being young. Hey, wait! That's a lot like what we're fielding now! How's that going for us...right. Must. Improve. Offense.

One of our better minor league prospects, Asdrubal Cabrera, is years away from the Show, but he could eventually step into the void at shortstop as an above-average major leaguer. Actually, we have several potentially-useful middle-infield types in the low minors: Matt Tuiasasopo is playing for the Low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers; Cabrera is at the high-A Inland Empire 66ers; while SS Adam Jones has been promoted recently to the AA San Antonio Missions. But these gentlemen are years away from contributing, and probably cannot be counted on even to make their MLB debut by the time the 2007 AL West is decided. It is possible that we could see Yuniesky Betancourt (at Tacoma now) filling in at SS in 2006 or 2007, but I honestly am not sold on him as a long-term solution; Morse might as well be the guy.

The good news here is that there is PLENTY of room for improvement via free agency. Boone, and his $8 million salary, are departing the team no later than October. If Jose Lopez is going to come up and stick in place of Bert, we can look to sign either a 2b or a SS, which could potentially get us from 3 above-average players to 4. No one really jumps out, although perhaps we can sign Rafael Furcal relatively cheaply, given his thus-far miserable 2005. I think he probably qualifies as the best FA middle infielder who is likely to be available.

More good news: Randy Winn, who is more or less signed (weird mutual option) through '06, can likely be counted in the "above-average" column in place of Snelling, above, and if Jeremy Reed develops a bit this season, perhaps he can take Winn's place (as useful) next year. We can then trade Winn for a needed starting pitcher. This makes room for Snelling and/or Choo, who will need further development time, but who are probably nearly ready to take their last steps in the majors.

None of this, of course, improves the offense immediately for 2006, which is the basis for my skepticism. But longer-term, as Lopez, Snelling, and perhaps Choo develop into viable major league batters, I believe that we do have a window from 2007/8 onward to be at a point where we can simply reload for several years running, dipping into the free agent pool judiciously to fill in holes that cannot be filled from the farm system.

All of this, however, turns on making the pitching staff an asset, on something more than an "I'm shocked that we won that game" kind of way. I've already done some speculating here, but what about the longer term?

Of course, we pin our hopes on the development of Felix Hernandez into an ace. No pitchers currently on the major league roster are the kind of scary starting pitcher that can be counted on to stop losing streaks and strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters. If King Felix stays healthy and delivers on at least most of his promise, then we'll have that for the first time since before the whiny-wanna-be-traded tantrum that was Randy Johnson's 1998.

If the rotation begins with Felix-Pineiro-Meche-???-??? within the next couple of years, then perhaps we can hope to use one of the advantages of an inexperienced lineup (namely, a budget payroll bill for the hitters) to lure one or two free agents to come pitch in Safeco. Not retreads like Aaron Sele, but the kinds of starting pitchers who can reliably contribute 200 innings of above-average work each season.

It is hard to be less vague, given the difficulties in guessing which pitchers will find themselves to be free agents in, say 2006 or 2007. Sure, we can guess based on service time, but there will be plenty of quality hurlers who are not really going to reach free agency at the earliest-possible time due to signing long-term deals with their original team.

Perhaps you can see where I'm going with this.

Since starting pitching is looking a lot like the thing that will stand between Seattle and relevance in the AL West in the next five years, I submit that the last, greatest, test of Bill Bavasi's value as GM of this club will be his ability to find and acquire cheaply today the pitchers who will turn in surprisingly valuable seasons as starters in 2007, 2008, and beyond. I can't tell you who they are (if I could, well, I'd probably have a different job), but if Bavasi can figure it out, then he's got the biggest crystal balls of them all.

In an exciting turn of events, it seems that the team is looking to flip Boone and Winn right now for pitching. Hey, I have to be able to attach SOME hope to this team....


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