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The Perfect Fit That Won't Happen

Bobby AbreuIt has been a surprisingly busy week for the Mariners. First, there was the Heilman deal. Then, they signed Mike Sweeney to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training. Thanks to a number of injuries the past three years, he is likely washed up, but the invite can't hurt. Now, the Mariners have focused their attention on acquiring one more bat, preferably in the outfield. Rumor is they have targeted Bobby Abreu as their clear top choice.

Bobby Abreu would be the perfect fit for this team. He could play either in left or right field, and though he is not an incredible defender, he is still an upgrade over Raul Ibanez. Also, Abreu is left-handed and has comparable power to Ibanez, so his swing and skillset should play in Safeco well. Most importantly though, Abreu is one of the most patient hitters in the game today. He always is among the league leaders in pitches seen, and has a career on-base percentage right around .400. His approach at the plate would help any team, but especially a team that has been as overly aggressive as the Mariners the past couple years.

The only thing holding up a deal between Abreu and the Mariners right now is money. From the sounds of it, Abreu is not asking for too much. It's just that the Mariners do not have much money to play with at this point. The Mariners are believed to have roughly $94 million to spend on payroll this year, and they are right around $92 million with the players they have right now. So, to sign Abreu, someone is going to have to be traded, with the logical choice being Washburn, Silva, or Batista.

The problem is that no team in their right mind will take any of the M's three overpriced starters. Batista has only one year left on his deal, but he looked terrible last year, and he's only getting older. He has absolutely no value. Meanwhile, Carlos Silva is very likely to bounce back, but is a team really willing to bank on that if they need to eat 3 years and nearly $40 million in salary? That leaves Jarrod Washburn, who is the most likely to get dealt, but look at who is still available. Guys like Randy Wolf, Oliver Perez, and even Ben Sheets can't get deals, and will likely sign for less than what Jarrod Washburn will make this year. Why would any team not sign one of those pitchers first?

If the Washburn deal in place with the Yankees at the deadline had not been nixed, Bobby Abreu would be a Mariner right now. The trade turned down looked bad at the time, and it continues to look worse. As good as Jack Zduriencik has been so far, I do not see how any GM could pull off a deal with Jarrod Washburn in this current market. It is sad becuase the Mariners might have an outside chance of contending with Abreu. Thank you Mariners ownership, or whoever shot down the Washburn deal last July.

Heilman Gone, Cedeno and Olson In

Ronny CedenoThe rebuilding continues. Today, Jack Z traded away Aaron Heilman to the Cubs for INF Ronny Cedeno and LHP Garrett Olson. To make room on the 40-man roster, the M's also released RHP Randy Messenger. Heilman was acquired in the J.J. Putz megadeal, so he will end up never throwing one pitch in a Mariners uniform. As a brief sidenote, this deal may end any chance of the Cubs acquiring Jake Peavy, which is certainly noteworthy.

This is another move from Jack Zduriencik that makes so much sense on so many levels. His mantra is to acquire talent, and that's what he keeps doing. Heilman was quite redundant on this roster, and frankly I am pretty sure he was always more of a throw-in that the Mets wanted to get rid of than a person the Mariners were very interested in acquiring. Heilman, like Washburn, Silva, and Rowland-Smith, would have been competing for a job at the back end of the rotation. Additionally, with the acquisitions of Tyler Walker and David Aardsma, he was not exactly essential to the back end of the bullpen either. Simply put, Heilman did not look like a great fit for this team.

On the other hand, Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Olson both are great fits. Olson can compete for a starting spot, just like a Heilman was going to. However, Olson is younger, cheaper, under team control for several more years, and has stuff better suited for starting right now anyway. On top of that, Ronny Cedeno provides needed depth in the middle of the diamond, and can push either Yuni Betancourt or Jose Lopez for playing time immediately. Even though both Olson and Cedeno are yet to have great major league success, their minor league track records indicate that they have the potential to develop into valuable contributors at the major league level.

The ultimate beauty of this deal though is that it is still good for the Mariners even if they do not progress. As I already said, Olson is already at least as well suited for the rotation as Heilman. Cedeno is already good enough to be a solid reserve infielder too. I am not real sure why this trade appealed to the Cubs, because it has a chance to make them look pretty bad....Wow, when was the last time anyone could say that about another team in an M's trade?

I am pretty excited to see the 2009 Mariners take the field. Off the top of my head, here is the list of M's that are candidates to take big steps forward (or return to form) in 2009:
  • Kenji Johjima
  • Jeff Clement
  • Chris Shelton
  • Yuniesky Betancourt
  • Ronny Cedeno
  • Bryan LaHair
  • Franklin Gutierrez
  • Erik Bedard
  • Brandon Morrow
  • Carlos Silva
  • Garrett Olson
  • Jason Vargas
  • Mark Lowe
The odds are better for some players than others, but the odds of none of those players progressing are virtually non-existent. It is not a question of if, but rather how many and how much. Granted, many of those players Jack Zduriencik inherited. But, he has breathed life into a stagnant 101-loss roster with every deal he has made. This team is back on the rise.

Mariners Sign Tyler Walker

Tyler WalkerYesterday the Mariners made a nice little move by signing RHP Tyler Walker to a one-year deal for $750,000, with a series of $25,000 bonuses based on appearances. At 32 years old, he has little upside, but he is a solid, proven commodity. Walker says the Mariners were his first choice when he became a free agent, so that is a definite plus.

As is often the case with smaller deals like this, the implications for other players on the roster are a much bigger deal. Walker will reportedly be in the mix to become the closer, along with Aaron Heilman, Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista, and perhaps Roy Corcoran too. More importantly, signing Walker makes it much easier for the Mariners to keep Brandon Morrow in the starting rotation.

I continue to be impressed by the job Jack Zduriencik is doing. He understands that this team's best days are still in front of them. He is building towards the future, and so key young players like Brandon Morrow are being put in positions where they can develop and hopefully become the cornerstones of the roster. Not that Brandon Morrow would be small piece if he became a dominant closer, but a top of the rotation starter trumps a closer any day.

However, Zduriencik is not giving up on this year. Guys like Tyler Walker and Russell Branyan are not superstars, but they fit team needs at the right price. The more I look at this roster and the other teams in the west, I'm starting to believe that with a little luck the Mariners could hang tough in the pennant race for longer than many expect.

Salary Cap Is Not the Best Answer

In the wake of the most extravagant spending spree in Major League Baseball history (courtesy the Yankees), there have been many arguing that a salary cap is needed to keep such a spree from happening again. The most popular arguments are for the sake of being fair, and/or to stimulate parody within the league. Often, the NFL is cited as the golden example. However, the value of a salary cap is grossly overblown; it is not a panacea for any professional sports league. There are better ways for Major League Baseball to level the playing field some.

Three other major American professional sports leagues - the NFL, NBA, and NHL - have salary caps. The NHL only implemented theirs a few years ago with their most recent collective bargaining agreement, so it is too early to make any firm conclusions about how it has impacted their league. However, it is fair to study the NBA and NFL, and both should be studied.

It is true that the NFL enjoys parody. The Patriots have emerged as a dominant team in recent years, but there are plenty of challengers within striking distance. A total of 8 teams have won the Super Bowl in the last 10 years, with the Patriots being the only team to capture multiple titles in that span. Additionally, massive turn-arounds are possible, such as those by the Dolphins and Falcons this year.

However, it is hard to attribute parody to the NFL's salary cap when looking at the NBA. The Association also uses a salary cap, but does not enjoy the same level of parody. Only 5 teams have captured titles in the past 10 years, with both the Lakers and Spurs capturing multiple championships in that span. Additionally, the past decade does not include any of the Bulls' six championships in the 1990s, the Rockets' back-to-back championships in the early '90s, the Pistons' back-to-back championships at the turn of last decade, or the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that dominated the 1980s. In fact, the NBA has only had 8 different champions in the last 29 years! Furthermore, glancing at the NBA standings this year, there is clearly an elite tier and then everyone else, which is hardly a sign of parody.

While on the subject of parody, let's take a look at World Series champions. Remarkably, MLB matches the NFL with 8 different champions in the last 10 years. In that span, two teams won multiple titles, the Yankees and Red Sox. Considering fewer teams qualify for the MLB playoffs than in the NFL or NBA, the multitude of World Series champions is perhaps even more remarkable.

Of course, the way all three leagues operate has remained far from stagnant the past decade, so on some level this brief comparision is unfair to all of them. However, if a salary cap is as significant as many think it is, shouldn't the the NBA and NFL have significantly more parody than Major League Baseball right now? According to team payroll gaps they do, but when it comes to actual competition, they do not.

So, it seems plausible that other factors impact competitive balance besides a salary cap. A logical place to look is revenue sharing. Here, the NFL has a unique model thanks to all telecasts being packaged in national contracts. Consequently, the NFL can disperse all televesion revenues (conveniently their largest source of revenue) evenly to teams. So, while some teams make way more than others through other sources, every team is capable of spending the maximum money allowed on payroll by the salary cap. Meanwhile, both NBA and MLB franchises rely much more on local revenues, thanks to local television contracts and the structure of their seasons (since both the NBA and MLB have significantly longer regular seasons than the NFL, ticket sales are more significant and television contracts are not quite as lucrative). As a result, the operating budgets for teams in both leagues vary more than they do in the NFL. While the NBA keeps their elite teams in check with a salary cap, there have been teams that were not capable of spending all the way up to the salary cap. In baseball, the heavy reliance on local revenue is the source of the large payroll gaps.

Spreading money around in professional sports leagues is at least as important as a salary cap, because the cap will not equalize payrolls if only a handful of teams can reach the ceiling. Major League Baseball has taken significant steps to increase revenue sharing, and the payrolls for teams in smaller markets have increased more than big market ones. Those efforts need to be continued whether a cap is implemented or not, because it is every bit as important to making a salary cap truly work.

Another significant difference in baseball needs to be considered, namely an MLB team's ability to control players they drafted for a remarkably long time. An amateur player signed by a baseball team can theoretically stay under team control for around a decade before even being able to file for free agency. In the NBA, a rookie may have to wait up to three years, and in the NFL it is entirely dependent on the first contract they sign (for first-round picks those are often in the range of five to six years). Baseball players stay under team control for much longer, and more importantly, stay under team control below market value for several years, even in their primes. Teams that understand this system and exploit it through shrewd drafting and trades are the ones that compete with remarkably low payrolls. Neither the NFL nor the NBA has a model even remotely similar to this.

Hapharzadly adding a salary cap in Major League Baseball, just because the NFL has one and has parody, is a bad idea. They are very different leagues. If MLB added a salary cap right now, it may have an adverse impact on competitive balance. For argument's sake, let's set baseball's salary cap at $150 million. Basically only the Yankees would be impacted, with their payroll of around $200 million. Clearly, they can support that kind of monstrous payroll, so while they would have to shed lots of contracts (and talent), they also would end up with $50 million more to spend elsewhere.

Suppose the Yankees spent all that $50 million in amateur scouting. Already, many amateur players (especially Scott Boras clients) slip in the draft because teams are not willing to meet their high salary demands. That would not be much of a concern to rich teams that all of a sudden cannot spend their money on free agents. However, more importantly, international players are not even subject to a draft! They simply become free agents when they turn 16. Teams with lots to spend would likely build up their international scouting. If a salary cap were added right now, affluent teams may end up with a major advantage in amateur scouting, meaning they may end up sucking the life out of the system that allows teams with less money to compete right now. The advantage could very well end up neutralizing any advantages of leveling out team payrolls.

A salary cap is not the answer in Major League Baseball. The league already has more parody than it gets credit for. Giving small market teams more money to use, and regulating amateur scouting much more would be more productive steps to take. Those need to be taken anyway for a salary cap to work, and those alone may eliminate any need for a cap at all.