The Seattle Mariners should be sellers at or before the insanely late July 31st trade deadline. Two factors greatly complicate that proposition. One – the second wild card makes it increasingly difficult for clubs to give up on playoff chances, especially when faced with October baseball starved fans. The recent winning streak of the M’s to climb back to .500 compounds factor number one. Two – who the hell would the Mariners sell? For the sake of argument, let’s forego exploring factor one and concentrate on factor two.
The Mariners are Old and the Contracts are Unwieldly
The major assets for the Mariners are quite old in the new MLB youth movement oriented atmosphere. Arguably the best hitter on the team, Nelson Cruz, is 36 and will turn 37 in July. The signature free agent signing of recent Mariners history, Robinson Cano, is 34 and will turn 35 immediately after the season, unless the team gets to the World Series, in which case he’ll celebrate getting another year older during the series. Hisashi Iwakuma, who is currently on the DL with a shoulder injury, turned 36 at the start of this season. Felix Hernandez, who should return from the DL this week, is 31. And even Kyle Seager, who may seem younger due to the arrival of his phenom kid brother Corey with the Los Angeles Dodgers, will hit the big Three O this November. In a world where even the New York Yankees have a Gary Sanchez at 24 and an Aaron Judge at 25, the Mariners are extremely old.
To compound matters, the contracts of the “core four” – Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Hernandez – are a rather inflated and unwieldly albatross.
Robinson Cano currently holds the third highest contract in all of MLB, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton, worth a total of $240MM. The average salary over the course of the contract is $24MM per year and extends until 2023, or his age 40 season. How many productive over-forty 2B in MLB history can you name?
Felix Hernandez currently holds the fourth richest contract among pitchers, behind Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Zach Grienke, worth a total of $175MM. With an average salary of $25MM per year, the declining King is under contract until 2019.
Next up is the relatively young Kyle Seager with the third eight figure contract on the roster at a total value of “just” $100MM. The average salary of $14.3MM (rounded) seems almost reasonable in today’s market. But the fact that he’s locked up until 2022 when he’ll turn 34 at 3B and hasn’t really approached the production from the season that earned him the contract in the first place is reason enough to question the mobility of this contract.
Finally, Nelson Cruz is in the next to last season of his four-year $57MM contract. He’s owed “just” $14MM next year, and even at 37 entering next season, might, ironically, be the easiest contract on the roster to move to an AL contender needing a big right-handed bat at DH. The question would be, what AL team currently in major contention needs such a bat? The Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros are all set. Every other team is hypothetically vying for the same spot the Mariners might be vying for.
What Assets do the Mariners Have?
Having already dealt pitcher Taijuan Walker in the offseason to acquire shortstop Jean Segura, realistically the only major asset the Mariners possess who might bring back top prospects is pitcher James Paxton. Yes, a team like the Red Sox, who are stinging from the failure at 3B of Pablo Sandoval and will probably have to eat the remainder of his five-year $95MM contract, MIGHT be willing to take on a Kyle Seager. But realistically, Paxton is the jewel on the Mariners major league roster. And the added advantage of trading Paxton over, say, Nelson Cruz, is that 29 teams are in play, rather than just 14.
Now Paxton isn’t as young as you might think. He is currently 28 and will turn 29 in November. But, he only has 347 major league innings on his left arm – a little over a season and a half for starters these days – and has shown steady improvement, blossoming into his much-touted potential. The only potential red flag has been his inability to pitch much past the sixth inning. Last season, he pitched 121 innings in 20 starts – one inning more than six per start. And this season he’s pitched 61 innings in 11 starts – just under six per start.
At 6-4, 235, Paxton should be able to pitch deeper into games. Just getting the seventh under his belt in today’s relief pitcher specialist atmosphere would be a major asset to a contending team like the Yankees or the Red Sox or even the Chicago Cubs, all teams that need starting pitching and have excellent farm systems.
Paxton’s WHIP of 1.31 is a tad high, but the FIP of 2.77 shows that his 3.39 ERA might be a bit high actually – an excellent sign. He’s striking out over a batter an inning and is issuing a walk only about every three innings. With a bit more luck and maybe playing in front of a better defensive infield, Paxton could be a really good number two or an excellent three on a playoff team.
The catch, however, should be obvious. On an aging team, Paxton represents relative youth and real upside. With Felix in decline, Paxton projects to be the Mariners ace of the near future. On the other hand, how well has it worked out having a perennial Cy Young contender and nothing else on the roster?
The Mariners face a real dilemma. The window on this team is closing rapidly, as father time takes its toll. The offense is currently potent, but doesn’t project to be in the really near future as Cruz and Cano age. The farm system has gotten a little better with the last two Jerry Dipoto led drafts but they still only ranked 28th out of 30 teams by Keith Law of ESPN before this draft (updates coming). There isn’t really a foreseeable future. There’s now. We’ll see what happens between now and July 31st.