With the Red Sox emphatically concluding 2007, the baseball offseason is upon us. The attention thus far has been on the Yankees, and rightly so with the departures of Joe Torre and Alex Rodriguez. At some point, a blog post may have to be dedicated to the Yankees, and free agency in general (my hitter and pitcher rating formula pages both have updated pay projectors, for anyone interested in seeing what free agents should be asking for). However, it would not be right to start with any team other than the Mariners.
The M's had two major shortcomings last year, one obvious and one not quite so obvious. The easy one to spot was the starting pitching, specifically the complete lack of a number five starter the entire year. However, it was not all the pitching's fault. The whole pitching staff was not helped out by the M's other major shortcoming, an outfield defense that featured the fielding equivalent of statues in left and right field. It is tempting to look at the 2007 Mariners and want to keep the team together, and just add a key piece or two in free agency. If the M's were able to do that, a 90-win season would seem well within reach. However, adding to this team is not the right thing to do. To start with, the pieces the M's need are not available in free agency, especially when it comes to pitchers. However, even if there were attractive free agents available, the wise thing for the Mariners to do would be to stand pat.
Starting with the everyday players, the only starter that may be lost in free agency is Jose Guillen. Granted, his offense will be difficult to replace from within the organization, but he also had very limited range in right field. In addition, Richie Sexson did not exactly have a sterling year offensively or defensively at first base. Ultimately, I think the Mariners' lineup will be just as good, if not better, if they move Raul Ibanez to first base, and start Adam Jones in left field, and Wladimir Balentien in right. This should provide noticeable defensive upgrades in left and right field, and perhaps even at first base. On top of that, it is plausible that Jones and Balentien's combined offensive production could rival Sexson and Guillen's combined production. However, given the defensive improvement, they have room to struggle offensively without making the team a worse one than it was last year. Also, by not signing Guillen, the team would save roughly $8 million dollars.
Like the everyday lineup, the pitching staff will be losing only one key member as well, Jeff Weaver. Though Weaver improved drastically after his epically terrible first month, he still was not worth $8.35 million. Unfortunately, Weaver was far from the worst pitcher on the staff either, thanks to Ho-Ram's lackluster performance. It may seem tempting to plug the holes with veteran starters like Josh Fogg, and though a move like that would improve the Mariners, it is not the best one for the team. Instead, they should promote from within here as well. Personally, I would let Weaver go and boot Ramirez out of the rotation, leaving two starting slots open. I would give Brandon Morrow one of them, and then have Cha Seung Baek and Ryan Rowland-Smith compete for the final one in spring training, with the loser being a long reliever out of the bullpen. It may seem very risky relying on such green, unproven players in two starting slots, but it has to be kept in mind that they are replacing Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, who did not set the highest of standards in 2007. There will be days where the two youngsters look bad, but there will also be days where they look great, and in the end the youngsters would be an upgrade. As an added bonus, the Mariners would save $8.35 million.
Honestly, I would consider it a successful offseason if the Mariners do absolutely nothing, and fill all their holes from within. It would save them around $16 million, and they likely would not field a worse team in 2008 than they did in 2007. If the M's keep that salary space open, and then let Richie Sexson go once his contract expires at the end of next year, they will have about $30 million to spend in 2009, which should be more than enough money to go after Johan Santana if he becomes a free agent. Imagine an M's team full of youngsters that all have a year of major league experience under the belt, and a starting staff that could feature two legitimate aces, plus an up-and-coming Brandon Morrow. Honestly, that trio would have a chance to reach the level of Mulder/Hudson/Zito, and Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine, which would be scary with a young offense that could feature 4 20-homer hitters in Adrian Beltre, Adam Jones, Wladimir Balentien, and Jeff Clement.
If the Mariners do nothing this offseason, they likely won't be a strong playoff contender in 2008. However, they will be quite young, pretty good, and gain the financial flexibility to explore adding a guy like Johan Santana, who in 2009 could be the piece that takes them from a playoff contender to a championship contender. Hopefully the Mariners recognize all the benefits of steering clear of the free agent market this offseason. Based on the moves they have already made, as well as rumors floating around, I believe that they do.