A guaranteed contract is a big deal, both for a player and a team. On the team's side, all the money is guaranteed, even if the player is cut loose. It's a significant financial commitment. On the player's side, the system is set up to make them go about a decade in pro ball before hitting free agency.
The system is set up for players with guaranteed contracts, particularly big ones, to be the core of a team. Players need to be good in a team's eyes to warrant big money, and they have to have accumulated enough MLB service time to make it this far. We will see that the Mariners have a few exceptions to this rule, but the basic premises set up how I will evaluate the core.
The first question is as simple as they come: How good is the core? Is it a group a winning team can be built around? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
The second question is almost as important: Is the core worth the money it is getting paid? There is only so much money to go around, and if players are gobbling up more salary than they are worth, it means that the overall core probably isn't that good, and also limits the ability to improve it with outside help. This is why bad contracts are so crippling.
I will start with the second question and get back to the first. Here is a look at each 2011 Mariner with a guaranteed contract:
- OF Ichiro Suzuki ($18 million) - He's still hitting, running, and fielding at a high enough rate to justify the big contract, even without considering the cash flow he represents as the M's connection to the Japanese market. I keep waiting for Ichiro to decline, and maybe 2011 will be his year. However, his personal preparation and maintenance is unparalleled in the game, and speed tends to age gracefully. Overall, this projects as a fair deal.
- OF Milton Bradley ($13.33 million) - This contract is a problem. Bradley tends to get injured, making him a liability to play in the field regularly. This year, he hasn't hit at all, adding to the issues. Bradley's salary can only be justified by an impact everyday player. The best hope is that he can make an impact when he plays, but he might fit best as the top pinch-hitting option on a bench, with occasional starts to keep him fresh. Bottom line, no matter what the 2011 Mariners are not going to get the bang for their buck out of this salary.
- SP Felix Hernandez ($10.7 million) - The Mariners bought out some of Felix's arbitration years, so this is one of the salaries that isn't exactly set by open market value. I won't waste any more words telling you what you already know. The King is worth $10.7 million and then some.
- 2B Chone Figgins ($9.5 million) - Figgins signed as a free agent with a knack for getting on base, creating havoc on the basepaths, and throwing some good leather around. So far, he has been a force on the bases as hoped...at least when he gets on. Figgins has a skillset that suggests he should be able to bounce back; but, the longer he doesn't bounce back this year, the more unnerving this piece of the puzzle looks. The good news is that I don't think Figgins will be any worse than what we have seen. However, the 2011 team needs Chone to rebound. Given the salary, 2010 performance, and career track record, Figgins might be the most dynamic piece in the 2011 core.
- SS Jack Wilson ($5 million) - Jack gets paid to play killer defense every day. Injuries have robbed him of playing time, and perhaps some of his defensive range. Combine that with an overly aggressive approach at the plate in 2010, and Wilson looks like another sunk cost. The 2011 team needs him to find his plate discipline again, but what they really need to know is that he can play a mean shortstop 120 times or so. That's what it will take to make this contract worth it.
- OF Franklin Gutierrez ($4.313 million) - Like Felix, Guti got arbitration years bought out. His defense alone is worth more than he gets paid. Maybe some day I will make my argument for why this is the best contract in baseball, because it might be.
- 3B Jose Lopez ($2.75 million) - For as maligned as Lopez has been this year, he is paid like a bench player. This is partly because he was another player signed before he was arbitration eligible. Still, he has to do almost nothing to justify the salary, so it is hard to point at him as a roster problem. Batting him third every day might be a problem, but he is not paid like a guy expected to carry the offense.
- 2B Dustin Ackley ($1.5 million) - Yet another exception, Ackley was inked to a major league deal after getting drafted. As a result, it is not really fair to compare his salary to others on this list, but my criteria, it is a guaranteed salary. All this really says is that once Ackley is ready for the majors, he might as well be called up. The arbitration process is pointless with him, because he already has a guaranteed deal.
However, overall, the core projects to give the M's a fair return on their investment. Some of the worse contracts are balanced by clearly advantageous deals. Furthermore, on offense, the core lacks power, but leaves first base, designated hitter, and possibly third base open. It is a group that needs help, but between decent finances, and holes that can be realistically plugged, it is a group that can be worked with.