Over the next couple of days, Griffin and I will be debating whether or not the Seattle Mariners should ink Nick Swisher to a long-term deal this off-season. I gave him the choice of which side he wanted to defend, and consequently, Iíll be arguing in favor of signing a thirty-two year old with one 4+ WAR season on his resume to an extended contract worth tens of millions of dollars. Thanks a lot Griff.
In all seriousness, though, I legitimately do think that Swisher would be a strong signing for the Mariners. The Mís demonstrated in 2012 that they already have the talent on hand to compete with baseballís middle tier of teams but they also proved that theyíre at least an impact player or two away from the point where we can reasonably expect them to compete for a playoff berth. Swisher is one of the few players on the market this winter with the ability to significantly improve this team, and just as importantly, provide value at a position that the Mariners need to address. Provided that his contract stays out of Jayson Werth territory, Swisherís bat, consistency, and positional flexibility are a panacea for Seattleís needs.
First, letís get the financials out of the way. General manager Jack Zduriencik is on record saying that he expects payroll to increase from the $85 million budget he worked with in 2012. Thereís further speculation that that number could rise past $90 million. We donít know exactly how much of a bump heíll actually get, but even if itís an increase closer to $5 million, Jack Z still has $28+ million to play with this off-season. (After the Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez signings, the Mís are on the hook for about $62 million with another $12 million or so due in arbitration proceedings.) Assuming Jack's figures are accurate, thatís enough money to sign a big free agent while still retaining the flexibility to add a couple of smaller additions on the side.
Given that the Mís have the money to acquire a marquee free agent, it then makes sense to evaluate what the club needs. Clearly improving the offense is a priority. Itís no secret that the Mariners havenít been able to hit for years now, but itís telling that 2012 was considered a step in the right direction, even when the team finished last in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. While the Mís were dragged down by a brutal home ballpark situation (they hit significantly better in road games), the Mís were still last in the American League in wRC+, a metric that attempts to remove park effects. As of now, the Mís only roster three players who A: had a wRC+ better than 100 (average) last season, and B: appeared in at least fifty games. Itís no stretch to say that the offense needs some help.
Surprisingly, a quick glance around the diamond reveals fewer gaping holes than one might expect out of a team with such a poor recent offensive track record. John Jaso is the catcher of the present, Mike Zunino the backstop of the future (I donít know what Jesus Monteroís role will be, but heís at least in the conversation at this point). Dustin Ackley will get at least another year to prove 2012 was an anomaly. Kyle Seager isnít going anywhere, as he was the Mís best non-Jaso hitter a year ago. Brendan Ryan can't hit but he's arguably the best defensive player in baseball, and itís not like the free agent market is burgeoning with starting shortstops anyways. If healthy, Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez are both going to start. For now, weíll assume that Montero will receive the bulk of the playing time at DH.
That leaves a corner outfield spot and first base. The latter position is an enigma. Justin Smoak deserves a post of his own, but for now, letís summarize his standing in the organization.
Smoak is a former top 20 prospect in all of baseball, one who has, in stints, looked every bit as good as his billing. Last September was one such spell. After spending August tweaking his stance, shortening his swing, and demonstrating a renewed focus to take a more direct path to the ball, Smoak went bonkers in the seasonís final month. He walked as often as he struck out (13 times in 101 plate appearances), homered five times, hit .340, slugged .580, all good for a wRC+ of 182. It was a Pujolsian performance and those four weeks rank among the best months a Mariner hitter has enjoyed since the first term of the Bush administration. EITHER Bush administration.
Of course, there has been another side to the Justin Smoak experience in Seattle. Even with a herculean finish, Smoakís triple slash was ugly: .217/.290/.364 isnít a good line for a glove-first infielder and itís atrocious for a first basemen. He wasnít much better before 2012 either. In over 1,400 career at-bats, Smoak has just 47 homers, a 90 wRC+ and an even 0.0 wins WAR. Thereís a lot more bad than good in Smoakís career to date and the Mís canít afford to play a first basemen who looked as inept as Smoak did for much of last season. Eric Wedge will certainly want to give Smoak an opportunity to prove that last September was no fluke but the Mís also have to have contingencies on hand if Smoakís game falls apart.
Regardless of how the team handles the situation at first-base, itís clear that the Mariners need another starting outfielder. Gutierrez remains a top-flight centerfielder when he plays, but on days he doesnít, Wedge would be forced to start two from the group of Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Mike Carp, Eric Thames, and Scott Cousins. Wells is a nifty fourth outfielder and Thames is a fine bat off the bench, but this is a crew that offers more in depth than it does in value. The Mís wonít want to be forced to start any of that group for a significant length of time and theyíll have to acquire at least one player (and probably a second to caddy for Gutierrez) to avoid doing so.
To summarize, the Mariners will want to upgrade the offense, and in particular, theyíll need to add an outfielder, possibly one with experience playing first base in case Smoakís September was a mirage. Furthermore, the new acquisition would ideally hit right-handed, as the Mís are absurdly lefty heavy at the moment. Thatís a pretty picky set of characteristics. In normal winters, the Mís would probably have to sign multiple players to buttress both positions. But this year, the Mariners are in luck. The 2012 free agent class just happens to have a player who fits that curiously specific bill, and as you might have guessed, his name is Nick Swisher.
Positionally, Swisher makes sense. Heís a corner outfielder by trade, but injuries to Mark Teixeira (and the acquisition of Ichiro) forced the Yankees to play Swisher at first base as well. Itís a position heís handled respectably, if sporadically, at various points in his career. If Smoak gets hurt or struggles again, the Mís can pencil Swisher in at first without worrying about whether he can handle the position.
The real value Swisher provides, though, is that he can hit. He enters the off-season with a career .256/.361/.467 slash line, 209 homers, and a 120 wRC+ over what roughly amounts to eight full seasons of playing time. Itís also encouraging that Swisher, a switch hitter, doesnít have much of a platoon split. Nick is slightly better against lefties (129 wRC+ vs. a 116 mark against righties) but heís not a matchup liability against either side. Heís also not a product of a friendly home ballpark. In his career, Swisher has hit nearly as well on the road (119 wRC+) as he has at home (121).
Swisher is also a remarkably consistent player. Itís always a bonus when an about-to-be-expensive player has a track record of durable, steady performance, but Swisher takes these characteristics to the next level. Here are his totals across categories over the past four seasons (chronologically, so starting in 2009 and moving through 2012):
Games: 150, 150, 150, 148
Home runs: 29, 29, 23, 24
OBP: .371, .359, .374, .364
wRC+: 125, 135, 124, 128
WAR: 3.2, 4.1, 3.8, 3.9
Itís almost eerie. In fact, excluding a BABIP-driven anomalous 2008 season, Swisher has posted a wRC+ between 122 and 135, and a WAR between 3.2 and 4.1, in every season since 2005. Just for the sake of perspective, Jamie Moyer was the Mariners opening day starter in 2006. Swisher is thirty-two and probably wonít maintain this kind of production into his late thirties, but there is no evidence of decline in his game yet, and heís as likely as any free agent to play as an above average bat over the next few seasons.
In short, Swisher has all the traits on the Mariners checklist. He can hit, plays in the corner outfield, and his track record confirms that heís playing as well as ever right now. From this point, it all depends on price.
I linked earlier to Swisherís crazy desire for a Jayson Werth type contract, referring to the surprising 7 year, $126 million deal the Nationals lavished on their grizzly-bearded right fielder. I wouldnít advocate signing Swisher at that rate. Werthís contract was viewed as an overpay at the time and the deal certainly doesnít look any better now. More pertinently, Werth was a year younger and had a better recent track record than Swisher's. So, if Swisher can get that kind of money, I would hope he finds it elsewhere.
Assuming $126 million is simply a pipe dream of Swisher's, letís find out what heís more likely to receive.To estimate Swisherís worth, weíre going to borrow from a model Dave Cameron built to estimate fair contract values . In short, Cameron claimed that teams were paying about $5 million per WAR before the 2012 season and that he expected this rate to increase by about 5% each winter. He also assumed that on average, a playerís value will decline by about half a win per season. We'll use this model to project Swisher's production value and to estimate how much that will be worth.
For the sake of round numbers, letís project Swisher accrues 4 WAR in value in 2013. We'll follow Cameron's guideline from last winter and assume that teams will pay $5.25 million per WAR in 2013. Finally, let's also suppose that Swisher wants a six year deal. Plugging all of this in, hereís how weíd expect him to produce and how we'd value such contributions:
2013: 4 WAR, $21 million
2014: 3.5 WAR, $19.285 million
2015: 3 WAR, $17.37 million
2016: 2.5 WAR, $15.2 million
2017: 2 WAR, $12.76 million
2018: 1.5 WAR, $6.7 million
According to the model, Swisher is worth about $92 million over six years. I think this is on the high end of his value: 4 WAR is a high projection for 2013 and he doesnít have the classic, Derek Jeter type, athletic profile that suggests heíll age gracefully.* That said, I'd be ok with paying him about $90 million. The assumption that a player will lose half a win of value is an aggressive one and it's partly derived from the increasing possibility that an aging player will suffer a career-hampering injury, less of a risk with a durable player like Swisher. Should Swisher remain reasonably healthy throughout the deal, he should exceed the WAR projections outlined in the model. And even if he does get hurt (or just play poorly), the case of Barry Zito and the Giants demonstrates that even though an albatross contract might curtail payroll flexibility, such bad deals donít in and of themselves turn a contender into a doormat. I wouldn't want to pay much more than $90 million, but something around that that figure is a fair deal for both sides.
* Although Chone Figgins fit this profile to a T, so who really knows about anything.
With all that in mind, Swisher makes a lot of sense for the Mariners. Heís a proven hitter, heís a consistent player, and he plays a position of need. Yes, heíll be expensive, but the Mís have the money to spend and itís time to take the next step in the rebuilding process. Provided that his contract doesnít head north of nine digits, Iím on board with signing Nick Swisher.
Griffin Klett's counter argument here.