In case you missed it, Jon Heyman and Nick Swisher (and the latter's representatives) unknowingly teamed up to cause a bit of a stir around the Mariners corner of the blogosphere yesterday. Swisher, possibly the best free agent remaining on the market, is in the process of touring his potential landing spots and Heyman tweeted that Seattle was not on his list of destinations. Heyman also reported that the Mariners were uneasy with the idea of signing Swisher because he'd cost the organization their first round pick, the twelfth selection overall. Heyman tweeted that the Mariners would be willing to part with the pick for a "bigger free agent" but suggested that the M's didn't want to lose it on Swisher.
First of all, don't panic. Just because Swisher isn't currently planning on visiting Seattle doesn't mean that he won't consider playing here if he's offered a favorable deal. Money talks in these scenarios, often loudly. The Mariners are also a famously tight lipped organization, so it comes as no surprise that they're not as vocal in their courtship of Swisher as other clubs.
Second, Heyman's tweets reflect a rather strange assessment of both the current market and of Swisher's value. A quick peek at the list of available free agents demonstrates that Swisher is one of only two remaining bats that could be remotely considered "big" (Michael Bourn is the other), so if the organization is ok with surrendering the pick, they don't have a whole lot of options left. It's also odd that Heyman (or the Mariners) would suggest that Swisher doesn't offer the value that the 12th selection of the draft would provide.
I'm all in favor of building through the draft, but it's hard to imagine Swisher offering less value to the Mariners than the 12th overall selection. To demonstrate, I've calculated the average WAR for every 11th, 12th, and 13th pick from 1965-2002* in an effort to estimate the value of the slot.
*- I used the three picks to get a bigger sample; I didn't include players drafted after 2002 because most of those still have a good portion of their career ahead of them, and it would be difficult to accurately estimate their career value.
Players picked 11th: 38 players, 71 WAR, 1.86 WAR per player. Most: Greg Luzinski, 23.6
Players picked 12th: 38 players, 212.3 WAR, 5.58 WAR per player. Most: Nomar Garciaparra, 42
Players picked 13th: 38 players, 225.4 WAR, 5.93 WAR per player. Most: Manny Ramirez, 64.8
Total: 114 players, 508.7 WAR, 4.46 WAR per player.
The more recent picks are a similarly mixed bag. There are some success stories, most notably Jered Weaver and Andrew McCutchen. There are also a number of players who will never make an impact in the major leagues: Beau Mills, Lastings Milledge, Kasey Kiker, etc. In short, you certainly could get a useful player from the 12th spot, but you're a lot more likely to end up with a utility man or bullpen arm than any kind of impact prospect.
Swisher, meanwhile, has been worth nearly four wins in every season since 2008. He's not a superstar, but if we use the value estimating model I outlined earlier when making the case for signing him, he projects pretty well. Just as a refresher, we'll project Swisher to be worth about four wins in 2013 (taking a rough average of his last three seasons) and we'll expect his performance to annually depreciate by half a win thereafter:
2013: 4 WAR
2014: 3.5 WAR
2015: 3 WAR
2016: 2.5 WAR
2017: 2 WAR
2018: 1.5 WAR
Total: 16.5 WAR
By comparison, only 15 players taken 11th, 12th, or 13th ever accrued 16.5 wins over their entire career (though Jay Bruce, and possibly a few of the younger picks, should join that group soon). It's possible that the 12th pick becomes a cheap star, and there's always the possibility that Swisher winds up as a bust, but there appear to be more scenarios in which Swisher outproduces whomever ends up chosen 12th than ones in which he does not. Swisher won't be cheap, but he's probably the safer option.
For all those reasons, I wouldn't worry too much about those tweets. The Mariners want to land a bat, and are thus probably interested in Swisher. They also have a pretty good understanding of the type of value they can obtain with their first selection, and are undoubtedly aware that most evaluators consider the upcoming class extremely weak. Swisher may or may not sign with the Mariners, (and Ryan Divish's blog indicates that 'may not' is most likely at this point) but if he doesn't, I sincerely doubt that the 12th pick of next year's draft was the deal breaker.