thoughts on the Mariners, MLB draft, and more homelinksdraftabout me

One More For February

It's nice to have some games to talk about, even if they are meaningless ones. I also figured I should get one more post cranked out before March hits (though this is pretty late Friday night, so you will probably read it tomorrow, as in March 1). Whatever. Some notes on today's game, and perhaps this will morph into a weekly segment of sorts to keep track of spring training developments.


  • Ji-Man Choi - It's hard to believe but the Mariners are crowded at first base (just, unfortunately with a pile of replacement level talent). Choi lacks power, but went 2-for-2 on Friday. He won't make the team out of camp, but a hot spring matters, especially with a new coaching staff. Brad Miller's strong spring last year played a role in his call-up midseason. Choi, particularly with Jesus Montero's weight concerns, has a chance to log more innings at first base than his complete lack of buzz suggests. Pay attention to him.
  • Nate Tenbrink - Tenbrink is probably a bit old to be a prospect now, but injuries the past few seasons slowed his track to the majors. I like his versatility and I want him to show well in spring. He could be a surprising early call-up given how versatile he is. 2-for-3 days with a dinger help him stand out.
  • Jesus Sucre - Sucre is known as a defensive catcher, so any hitting is gravy. He got some hits today and a torrid spring might give him a chance to challenge John Buck. Who knows. It's early, so I'm grasping for storylines.
  • Carson Smith - I'm a believer in Smith, to the point that I think he is a dark horse to make the opening day roster. He quietly struck out 3 batters in relief today and also outshone fellow AA reliever Dominic Leone, who followed right after him. The injuries in the rotation might force several arms to move around the staff and open up a spot for a spring training surprise.
  • Ramon Ramirez - The veteran reliever threw a wild pitch and had a throwing error that let the lone Padres run score. Probably not a disastrous outing, but not good.
  • Ty Kelly - Two strikeouts, no walks, for a guy that will live and die with his plate discipline. Not the best first game.
  • Really, it's hard to find many bad performances in a 12-1 victory.
This spring is probably more important than last year's, if for no other reason than a new manager comes with a fresh perspective. Guys that perform well in spring are likely to get more opportunities with McClendon because he doesn't have much of a history with any of these players. It will be interesting to see who turns Friday's good game into a good week or two or whole month in the desert.

Nelson Cruz and Compensatory Draft Picks

Nelson Cruz recently signed with the Orioles for 1 year, $8 million. This is a bad move for him, given that he could have accepted the Rangers' 1 year, $14 million qualifying offer in December. He also reportedly had some multi-year offers he rejected as he waited for what he thought he was worth. Cruz played the market poorly, or at least as poorly as someone who is $8 million richer can play it.

The Mariners were linked to Nelson Cruz throughout the offseason. I hated the idea of signing him the whole way - until he signed with Baltimore. $8 million seemed downright reasonable, if not a bargain. I started to wonder if the Mariners missed out on Cruz.

The main issue with Nelson Cruz from the start was the qualifying offer, which meant a team would forfeit a draft pick to sign him. Some other day we can argue the absurdity of free agents being tied to draft picks, but for now it is the system teams live in. When a player like Nelson Cruz hits the free agent market a team must weigh if the free agent is more valuable than the draft pick they would lose. Teams seem to treat their draft picks like gold these days.

So I got to thinking and researching. How valuable are these draft picks?

Draft picks, like any players, gain value primarily based on how good they are. However, MLB players are virtually guaranteed to make less money than they would on the open market for their first six seasons (before they can become free agents). They are essentially guaranteed to earn the league minimum their first three seasons, and then go through arbitration for three more years to gradually escalate their pay towards what they are expected to make in free agency. So, a draft pick's value isn't simply wrapped up in their potential talent; it is also wrapped up in how cost effective they are. The threshold seems pretty low to get a positive return on the investment.

The more I thought about draft picks, the more I thought about a stat that I am going to call "effective WAR." It works like this: There is a fair market price for WAR on the open market. In a perfectly efficient market, a team pays for exactly how much WAR costs. But teams aren't perfectly efficient. A player who is a bargain brings two valuable traits: not only are they performing better than they should (based on their cost), but that money saved can be invested in the market to obtain more talent. This is the driving force behind effective WAR.

A hypothetical will help clean up this idea. Let's say 1 WAR costs $3.5 million in today's free agent market. A player who produces 1 WAR would have an "effective WAR" of 1. There is no change - they did exactly what was expected of them, based on the team's investment. However, let's say the player is actually worth 2 WAR. That should have cost the team $7 million dollars. So, not only is the team getting 1 WAR essentially for "free," that money they didn't spend getting that WAR can now be spent to get 1 WAR of talent in the marketplace. Therefore, the 2 WAR version of a $3.5 million player is worth 3 "effective WAR." The player isn't going to generate that extra 1 WAR on their own, but their production and contract has given the team the ability to go acquire an extra WAR that they shouldn't be able to get with a perfectly efficient team. Conversely, players who are overpaid get dinged by effective WAR. Not only do they eat up payroll space they shouldn't, but the cash they eat up is prevented from being spent efficiently in the open market.

Let's take this hypothetical into real life with Robinson Cano. The Mariners gave up a draft pick to sign him, though not their first-rounder because it's not protected. It's obvious that whatever draft pick the M's gave up is extremely unlikely to be as good as Cano because Cano is a bona fide star. However, Cano also signed a massive contract. What does effective WAR have to say about Cano?

For now, I'm estimating that 1 WAR on the open market costs $3.5 million.* This can be debated, but just roll with me. I went to Cano's fangraphs page and then averaged the three projection methods they offer (Steamer, Oliver, and crowdsourcing), which gave a projected 5.2 WAR for 2014. Cano, even with a rather lofty projected WAR total, is not a cost efficient player because he cost so darn much. However, he's still valuable. His effective WAR is estimated at 1.9, which in essence means he was penalized 3.3 WAR because he was so expensive. However, he is still worth something because he is a really good player.

*In practice for this model, I'm going with whatever the average salary of an MLB player is, to the nearest hundred thousand. Last year it was $3.4 million so I've got a bit of a bump built in, though probably not high enough. By assuming that the average cost of an MLB player is worth 1 WAR I am saying the average MLB player is worth 1 WAR. An average team will win 81 games, and subtracting 25 WAR from 81 gets us to 56 wins - which is around the theoretical threshold for how a replacement level team (all 0 WAR) would do. Again, roll with this for now. This might be improved if I get serious about this stat. It's good enough for a starting point.

Now, let's talk about draft picks. Effective WAR gives us a system to figure out how good a draft pick would have to be to be better than Cano when cost is figured in. The Mariners have to give up their second round pick because of Cano. Last year, the Royals drafted in the same slot as the Mariners would have in 2014, and the MLB slot recommendation was about $1.2 million. The 2014 recommendations aren't out yet (at least on the internet), so I will project a slot of $1.3 million. This is important to consider because it is part of the cost of acquiring draft talent.

Long story short**, a draft pick with a $1.3 million bonus would have to be worth about 1.0 WAR per year their first six seasons to be worth an effective WAR of 1.9. So, if the expected value of the M's draft pick is less than 1.0 WAR, then Cano is the better resource, even at 10 years, $240 million. I haven't gone through and figured out the expected WAR of the M's pick yet, but my gut says that it will be lower than 1.0 WAR. Cano is an upgrade, though an inefficient one.

**Here's the long story. I took the signing bonus and divided it over a player's first three pro seasons, and then added $500,000 (the league minimum salary). After that, I assumed a player would earn 40% of their open market value in year 1 of arbitration, 60% in year 2, and 80% in year 3. I felt this was the best way to estimate a player's cost in all their team-controlled years before hitting the open market, and take those six years as a whole and consider them for calculating the effective WAR for a player. I also considered inflation and set it at 6% annually in baseball, based on how the average price for a player has changed over the past 25 years (6% is the median). I also assumed a player will spend three seasons in the minors before making the majors, which mattered for inflation purposes. It turns out inflation doesn't change the values much anyway.

But what about Nelson Cruz? His projections suggest he will be about a 1.7 WAR player, which at $8 million gives him an effective WAR of 0.5 (so he's still an inefficient value). The Orioles will give up their second round pick because they already signed Ubaldo Jimenez***, and I loosely project the recommended bonus for that pick will be around $1 million. That pick would need to produce 0.3 WAR per season the first six years to match Cruz's 0.5 effective WAR. That's a pretty low WAR, low enough that it's debatable whether Cruz is more valuable than the draft pick before other factors are considered - namely if WAR now, like Cruz provides, is more valuable than the potential for WAR down the road (and in Baltimore's case, I would unequivocally say that it is).

***Ubaldo's effective WAR for next season is 1.1, though will likely sink quickly as he declines and his salary increases. Still, it seems like there's a reasonable (though not a definitive) case that signing him was better than keeping the draft pick. A first-round draft pick would need to be worth 0.6 WAR to get to 1.1 effective WAR.

The money involved is really important though. Cruz's effective WAR sinks to 0.0 if he were to be paid $9 million, so it would be very hard to justify any amount beyond that. MLB teams seemed to intuitively understand this (or perhaps run similar calculations to mine) with Nelson Cruz, but Nelson Cruz did not.

Effective WAR is far from a perfect stat for several reasons. It's unreasonable to think that we can predict a player's WAR with precision, the going rate for WAR on the open market, or how inflation will change over time. The draft is also more of a crapshoot than most are willing to admit. However, effective WAR is better than nothing, and gives a starting point for discussing free agents and draft picks.

Mariners Need, and Can Get, a Centerfielder

Spring training couldn't start much worse for the Mariners. Hisashi Iwakuma is injured and won't open up the season with the Mariners. Franklin Gutierrez recently announced he won't play at all in 2014. Mind you both of these pieces of news came out before either player reported to spring training.

Forgive me for my lack of excitement around pitchers and catchers reporting. I only wonder what further horrors are in store once the Mariners actually play ball.

The Mariners roster had flaws before these injuries, but flaws have become open wounds already. The starting rotation really needs Taijuan Walker to step up, and he just might be able to do it. He kind of has to because the outfield is an utter mess that the Mariners would be smart to address.

Right now, the starting outfield is...what exactly? Logan Morrison, Michael Saunders, and Corey Hart? Maybe Dustin Ackley somewhere in there? Regardless, that could very well be the worst defensive outfield in Major League Baseball. What's even worse is that Safeco Field is one of the bigger outfields in the major leagues. I had my fingers crossed that Guti could somehow become the regular center fielder, because his defense alone would have saved the Mariners from a nightmarish scenario. The nightmare is reality as of now though - the Mariners simply aren't going to play outfield defense this year, apparently.*

*I will say that I like Michael Saunders, and I'm okay with him playing centerfield on occasion, or playing center regularly with strong corner defenders. Right now he has to save the entire outfield, and he's simply not Mike Trout out there.

The Mariners need a center fielder and I am convinced they can get one at a decent price. They need to call the Toronto Blue Jays.

Colby Rasmus
Toronto has a pair of center fielders on their roster, Anthony Gose and Colby Rasmus. Gose is unproven but has tremendous speed with questionable hitting ability. Rasmus is a borderline five-tool talent with only one year left before free agency.

The Blue Jays also have some holes up the middle. Ryan Goins is slated to be their opening day second basemen. The Mariners have guys like Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin who might be able to fill that slot.

There's a deal to be made somewhere in there. Ackley for Gose? Ackley for Rasmus? Maybe the Jays would prefer Nick Franklin? Some other pieces would likely be needed, but the core framework for this deal might work.

The main focus for the Mariners seems to be on Nelson Cruz and getting another power hitter in general, but that outfield defense is the biggest hole on the Mariners roster right now. It can be improved too. Rasmus, as an added bonus, could be the power bat the Mariners want.

I don't like to make hypothetical trades because I don't have any information to really be able to tell what talks are going on or how other teams value Mariner players. I am pretty confident that the Jays and Mariners could find a deal that works for both teams though, and the Mariners look way better with Colby Rasmus or Anthony Gose in centerfield than they do without either of them.

More Pitching

Fernando Rodney
The Mariners have signed a trio of arms since the last time I wrote. Might as well lump them together and call it a blog post. Here they are:

Fernando Rodney - Rodney is the one of the bunch signed to an MLB deal, and will take over as closer from Lord Farquhar. By in large I hate this move, with no offense meant towards Rodney (and I really mean that! I kind of like Rodney's "magic plantain" thing). Rodney is an aging reliever with questionable control and unquestionably electric stuff. His 2012 campaign was magical, and while not quite the product of smoke and mirrors, fueled largely by all sorts of things breaking his way. Bottom line: Rodney is an old reliever with strengths and flaws. Danny Farquhar is a young reliever with strengths and flaws, and arguably better strengths with fewer flaws. I think Rodney will be a fine addition on the field, but not at the price the Mariners paid. Inefficient investment, which the M's can't afford to make because apparently they don't have much left since signing Robinson Cano to a massive deal.

Randy Wolf - Nothing will probably come from Wolf's minor league invite, but I like it. Wolf is an aging lefty coming off of Tommy John surgery. He didn't pitch at all last year, and was roughly replacement level in 2012. He'll have to be a born-again pitcher to be an asset...but Tommy John surgeries spur pitcher revivals from time to time. If Wolf finds a second wind with his new elbow ligament he brings a decade of solid starting pitching to the table. My best guess is that he's out of gas, but I don't mind at all that the Mariners decided to find out if he has something left. The M's should always look to bring guys in like this because Safeco Field can cover warts as veteran pitchers shake some rust off and try to revive their careers.

Zach Miner - Miner is pretty much the definition of a replacement level pitcher. I expect him to quietly produce some solid innings in Tacoma. He's coming to camp on a minor league deal, so no qualms, but I'm not going to write more unless he lights up the Cactus League - which he won't, because he pitches to contact, as evidence by a career K/9 rate below 6.

So there you go, more moves, none of consequence, other than the bullpen shuffling around for no good reason.