Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Newsletter Excerpt, December 4, 2023 -- "NL West and AL West Notes"


This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider.

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Seattle Mariners

The Mariners have now made two trades to wipe $32 million off their 2024 payroll, trading Eugenio Suarez to the Diamondbacks and, just last night, strapping Jarred Kelenic to the contracts of Marco Gonzales and Evan White and shipping them all to the Braves. 

Trading Kelenic is an attention-getter. The once top-ten prospect failed to launch in 2021 and 2022 before getting off to a hot start in 2023: .308/.366/.615 in April. It was a mirage; Kelenic hit .235/.314/.356 after that with a 33% strikeout rate and a 104/28 K/UIBB. In his three-year career, Kelenic is now at .204/.283/.373, with fair defense and speed. It’s certainly possible that there are better days to come. But remember, we have already seen Kelenic rebuild his swing once, and he got one good month out of it. At this point, Kelenic is more famous than he is good, and trading him to get out from under a total of $29 million owed to Gonzales and White over the next two years isn’t as crazy as it looks. 

I’d say much the same about trading Suarez, who is guaranteed $13 million in salary and buyout money. Suarez is a 32-year-old coming off a two-win season with declining defense and absolutely no speed. I can see why the Diamondbacks would take him, and I also see a player who may have no floor, who might not have three wins left in his career. 

Individually I can make both these moves make sense. It’s together that they become interesting. There are two possible explanations. One is that the Mariners are pulling back on player expenditures as they face potential drops in local-TV revenue. The Mariners own 60% of their broadcast outlet, ROOT Sports, and cable companies in the region have been moving the channel to its pay tier. On the other hand, the Mariners have been free to do marketing deals like they have with Fubo Sports, which offers streaming access to ROOT. This isn’t so much like the Diamond Sports Group/Bally’s teams, who might lose all their revenue, but rather a team dealing with uncertainty over the short term.

The other possibility is that the Mariners are clearing room for a large acquisition: Shohei Ohtani or Cody Bellinger in free agency, Juan Soto or Mike Trout in trade, someone who would fill the desperately needed role of a big bat in the middle of the lineup. The Mariners had a payroll of $180 million last year, highest in franchise history, and they’ve comfortably been in the $170-million range in the past. These moves leave them at $136 million for 2024 and under $100 million in 2025 and 2026.

The Mariners are in no position to tank, not with the championship-caliber core they have in place for the next three seasons. They have a very high floor. The next ten roster spots, though, were a problem last year. One way to fix that is to dance fast on the trade and free-agent markets to accumulate two- and three-win players for zero- and one-win prices. Another is to just add another six-win player to that core. 

I’m inclined to think this is the Mariners pinching pennies. If you make me pick, that’s what I’m going with. It’s not a 90/10 thing for me, though, and it may not even be 54/46. It’s December 4. There are a lot of stars still available. It’s just too early to evaluate any team’s moves as if they’re the only ones the team is going to make.