Based on what I've failed to repress from prior off-seasons, from a baseball standpoint, there aren’t a whole lot of redeeming features about the five months we’re about to face. There are award announcements (which trigger all the old and tired debates about player evaluation), Hall of Fame announcements (which simply ignite the same arguments with a dash of nostalgia), football games (ew), and the Winter Meetings (bleh), none of which satisfy the appetite of a famished baseball fan.
On a more day-to-day level, we’ll get by with trade rumors. I want to avoid presenting these as either a positive or a negative, because they can certainly be annoying. People make up rumors. Deals said to be as good as done fall through. And as Mariner fans, we’re all veterans of the annual ‘trade Felix Hernandez’ spew of columns due to appear online a few days from now.* Rumors are about to be a dime a dozen, and it’s important to make sure that they come from reputable sources and that they make sense for both teams before taking anything seriously.
*- Unless that rumored contract extension is announced.
But with those caveats out of the way, rumors aren’t all bad. The majority of credible rumors consist of a respected sportswriter speculating that a certain player is considering a specific team, or vice versa, and since such moves usually make teams better, they can be interesting to discuss. They’re often fruitless when talking about a tight-lipped team like the Mariners (remember how much of a heads-up we had when the Montero-Pineda trade broke?) but it’s fun to speculate anyways.
All of this brings us to ESPN’s Buster Olney announcing that the Dodgers might be open to trading their star right fielder Andre Ethier.
Clearly this is a deep rumor. This isn’t the Dodgers saying ‘We want to trade Andre Ethier.’ This isn’t Olney reporting ‘the Mariners are interested in Andre Ethier’ or even ‘the Mariners are in pursuit of a bat better than the flotsam they’ve usually sent to the plate over the past x seasons.’ Odds are that nothing comes of this. The Dodgers just invested $85 million over five years in Ethier, and that deal doesn’t even kick in until next spring.
Plus, the Dodgers aren’t exactly hurting for money. The team has shown a willingness to invest heavily in their big league club ever since Magic Johnson’s group took over last summer (they added a whopping $274 million in salary in the blockbuster deal with Boston) and they’ll soon be further buoyed by an insanely lucrative television deal. The Dodgers essentially operate as the New York Yankees West and they won’t have to take out a mortgage on Dodger Stadium to pay Ethier.
That said, there are possible financial and non-financial reasons Ethier has become expendable. LA has two other outfielders locked in for several seasons (Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford) and if they choose to re-sign Shane Victorino, they’d have quite the logjam.
While it doesn’t make explicit sense to resign Victorino with Ethier already under contract, we can't completely dismiss the notion that the Dodgers might want to trim their hefty payroll. Over the next five years alone, Crawford, Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez are each owed over $100 million. LA will also be paying Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, and Hanley Ramirez roughly $80 million through 2014, and we haven’t even talked about the bank-breaking potential Clayton Kershaw’s contract extension might be worth when he’s eligible for free agency in 2014.
Every club has a spending ceiling, and whether the Dodgers are near theirs or not, $85 million is a substantial sum of money. LA's outfield alternatives aren’t as dim as they were when Ethier signed the deal (Crawford will play in left and perhaps Victorino’s cameo in LA will encourage him to re-sign) and they could use the liberated money to tidy up the infield or bolster the back end of the rotation. The Dodgers face a vastly different financial and roster situation than they did when Ethier inked his extension, so it makes sense that the club would explore moving him.
And if the Dodgers choose to put Ethier on the block, boy does he make sense for the Mariners. Right field is one of the spots on the diamond Seattle should be looking to upgrade and Ethier’s bat is tailor-made for the position. Pundits are already discussing whether the team should sign Nick Swisher this off-season, but Ethier is essentially the same hitter likely laden with a comparable (and possibly cheaper) price tag after the dust settles this winter. Take a look at their numbers since 2008:
Ethier: 724 games, 3,035 PA’s, .280/.364/.480 slash, 105 homers, 128 wRC+
Swisher: 751 games, 3,089 PA’s, .259/.360/.469, 128 homers, 121 wRC+
Ethier (age 30) even comes with the advantage of being a year and a half younger than Swisher. It’s not all gravy: Ethier’s nothing special defensively, he has a pretty stark platoon split, and he might lose some value in the league switch. But none of that diminishes the fact that he has been one of the best and most consistent bats in the league over the past five years. He posted a routine (for him) 124 wRC+ last year and without any lingering injury concerns, he’s a good bet to stay productive throughout at least the early years of his contract.
The hard part is speculating what the Mariners would need to pay to acquire Ethier.* It’s nearly unprecedented for a team to trade a player before his (relatively lengthy) contract extension kicks in, so there aren’t a whole lot of comparable situations. Alex Rios was handed to Chicago a few years back for nothing but salary relief, but A: Rios was cheaper and B: Rios wouldn’t have fetched nearly as much on the open market as Ethier would now, even adjusting for inflation. Those variables would probably offset each other to some degree, and I can’t imagine the M’s would take on Ethier’s salary and still send a player of any renown to Las Angeles in a potential deal.
*- Certainly the biggest advantage a player like Swisher would have over Ethier is that the Mariners don’t need to worry about compensating another team to acquire Swisher’s services.
Whew. That was more words than I would usually be inclined to dedicate to such a deep rumor at this point in the off-season. I don’t know if that makes me desperate for some form of baseball or if I just want to see a good bat in the lineup next year. Whatever the case, it’ll be interesting to keep tabs on the Ethier situation this winter. I think the smart money says he stays in LA, but if he ever becomes available, the Mariners ought to be the first team negotiating with Ned Colletti. Stay tuned.