The feasibility of an upgrade will revolve around the team’s three most highly paid players, and that leads to a tricky discussion.
The million-dollar question facing the next Mariners’ general manager — or more like the $125 million-plus question — is whether this team can contend immediately, or if it needs a rebuild.
The answer is possibly, and yes. That’s the beauty of baseball in this era. With two wild cards and a definite trend toward parity — have you looked at the American League standings lately? — contention ain’t necessarily what it used to be.
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Right now, the Rangers are on pace to make the postseason with 84 wins. That’s not an unattainable goal for 2016. This is the age of overnight transformation. Year after year, we see a subpar team from the previous season zoom into the playoffs. This year, it could be the Rangers (95 losses in 2014), Astros (92 losses), or Twins (92 losses).
But that doesn’t mean the Mariners shouldn’t be tweaked, modified and upgraded — significantly. That’s obvious to anyone who has seen them play this year and can readily point to the gaping holes in team construction. Plus, the three aforementioned teams all had farm systems considerably more stocked with impact prospects than it appears the Mariners do. And in the National League, the second wild-card team, the Cubs, is on a 93-win pace, so you never quite know how it’s going to shake out.
Any such discussion of the feasibility of a rebuild will revolve around their three most highly paid players, who command an unhealthy proportion of their payroll. The Mariners’ had a reported opening day payroll of $123, 225,843 in 2015, which rose with Mark Trumbo’s acquisition.
Felix Hernandez ($24 million), Robinson Cano ($24 million) and Nelson Cruz ($14 million), accounted for a combined $62 million — almost exactly 50 percent. That number will be $63 million next year, with Kyle Seager and Seth Smith accounting for another combined $14 million.
Cano’s not going anywhere. At age 33, he’s headed toward his decline years (some would say they’ve already started), so no one is going to take on the $192 million owed him over the next eight years. And while Cruz is 35, he’s putting together an MVP-caliber season and is one of the Mariners’ top assets.
Hernandez is the tricky one. You know where I’m headed, and it’s not a fun topic to bring up. But any new general manager will at least have to debate the subject of exploring a Hernandez trade as a way to jump-start a rebuild. I’m not saying they should do it, but the discussion has to take place.
Felix has been a superb face of the franchise, a noble competitor who has toiled uncomplainingly, and brilliantly, through a succession of bad seasons. And he has complete no-trade rights, negotiated into his contract — at Hernandez’s insistence — when he signed his seven-year, $175-million extension on Feb. 13, 2013. Last month, that became moot when Hernandez became a “10-and-5” player — 10 years in the majors, the last five with the same club, which brings with it full trade-veto protection.
So any trade would have to come with Hernandez’s permission, and he’s done nothing to indicate he would grant it. Quite the opposite — Hernandez has set his roots in the community and made it clear he loves living here and playing for the Mariners. But he’s also a competitor, and at some point, the opportunity to play in the postseason may overcome his loyalty.
The other question is how much you would get for Hernandez, which may not be as much as you’d think. Talented young prospects are the coin of the realm in MLB these days. Teams have shown a great reluctance to give them up — especially when they have to assume whopping contracts like the $103 million left on Hernandez’s deal over the next four years. If you’re going to shell out that kind of dough, why not just sign a free agent like David Price? Then you wouldn’t have to give up any players.
Then again, $103 million doesn’t sound like so much in today’s baseball economy (Price will probably nearly cost twice as much), and Hernandez still carries much (deserved) stature around the game. I daresay you could find a team or two willing to give up top young talent to obtain Hernandez.
Let me stress again, I’m not saying trade Hernandez. This topic has come up at various other junctures, especially when Hernandez was nearing free agency. But the notion was too painful, and the better solution was to try to win with Hernandez. Now they’ve had him 10-plus years and haven’t won. Felix will be 30 in April, and though he’s been brilliant at times this year, he has also had some blowups that have brought his earned-run average to 3.66. That’s Hernandez’s highest since 2007, when he was 21.
It would take a gutsy GM to ponder as his first major move trading a franchise icon like Hernandez. But this franchise needs a gutsy GM. A potential Hernandez trade would be a huge psychological blow to the franchise, and there would be fans who say, “I’ll never root for the Mariners again if they trade King Felix.”
But they’ll root for the Mariners again if they win, and that’s what needs to be explored — whether the return for Hernandez, and the saved money that could be used to fill holes, would push the Mariners more quickly to contention.
As I said, the holes are clearly visible. The Mariners need to revamp their outfield. They need a new first baseman (and after some early optimism, it’s not Jesus Montero). They need to get a veteran catcher to hold the job while Mike Zunino figures out how to hit — most beneficially in Tacoma. The bullpen needs a makeover. And the rotation probably could use another proven arm, even if free agent Hisashi Iwakuma signs back.
Considering the state of the farm system, a new GM will have to be extremely creative to pull off all that. Team president Kevin Mather talked Friday about how the Mariners have “the nucleus of a very good baseball team, and I think the nucleus should bode well for our candidates.”
But Mather said he’s going to be open-minded about whether this team needs to tinker or “tear it down to the studs,” in his phrase. If one out of 10 candidates recommends a rebuild, Mather said he’ll dismiss that idea. But if five or six have that point of view, “I’ll have to back up and say, ‘Maybe I’m too in love with my own.’ ”
It’s the first, and most important, issue facing the next architect of the Mariners.