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Seattle and the Contract Swap Shop

The Cardinals are looking at a very interesting and complicated offseason. Perhaps there’s a way Seattle could help clear up one of the great conundrums of the St. Louis roster.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

There’s a theater near my house that has five dollar admission on Tuesdays, all day. It’s nice. I’m a sucker for actually going to see a film in a theater. So on a fair number of Tuesday afternoons, I’ll meet up with my mother, grab something to eat for dinner, and then head to the cinema for cheap admission. It’s not exactly a weekly ritual; more a couple times a month sort of thing, whenever schedules line up and there’s something that looks worth seeing.

So yesterday, we went and saw Bad Times at the El Royale. I went in expecting to absolutely love the film. I try not to get hyped up over films or television series ahead of time; I feel like that’s just asking to be disappointed. But in this case, I had been near-breathlessly awaiting the release of this film since first seeing the trailer months ago; if there’s one thing your ol’ pal Aaron is a sucker for, it’s midcentury American commercial architecture and design (Streamline Moderne and Googie especially). If there are two things your ol’ pal Aaron is a sucker for, it’s midcentury American commercial design and Jon Hamm. Bad Times promised plenty of both.

Sadly, I walked away from the movie rather disappointed. It wasn’t a bad film, per se; it was just an oddly structured, disjointed movie that ultimately just sort of fell apart under its own weight. The first half was brilliant, setting up multiple characters and storylines, all of which were intriguing in their own right, and seeming to point toward a fantastic little piece of noirish mystery filmaking, with a dose of Pulp Fiction’s nonlinear, segmented storytelling thrown in for good measure. And then, the second half just....ugh.

Basically, from the moment Chris Hemsworth shows up, the film lurches into an entirely different, much less interesting movie, almost like there were two scripts just sort of haphazardly sewn together. It’s bizarre, and incredibly disappointing that so much of what made the first half so intriguing and suspenseful and mysterious is totally lost. It’s not a complete failure, but I found it to be a huge letdown. It wanted to be a Coen Brothers movie, but took all the wrong lessons from No Country for Old Men about subverting narrative tropes and audience expectations. It just drops all the best stuff from the first half when Thor shows up. And I really want to see the rest of that first movie. It was super interesting.

This has been another installment of Movie Reviews with Aaron. Now on to actual baseball talk. Promise.

You know, I think we all understand that this offseason has the potential to be a big deal. Of course, given that this is a Cardinal blog for which I am writing and which you are reading, I assume we’re all looking at it from a Cardcentric point of view, and hoping it’s a big offseason for the franchise specifically. But even if the Cards are not the biggest player in the market this offseason — and, you know, just...don’t freak out, okay? — I think everyone acknowledges this offseason has the potential to seriously shake up the balance of power around baseball. Two of the biggest names to hit free agency in years will do so shortly after the World Series concludes, with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper both representing absurdly young, absurdly accomplished bets to be placed, with far more prime-year tread left on their respective tires than is almost ever the case with players on the free agent market.

Beyond those two players, there are plenty of other options on the market this year to upgrade, even if many of those players feel like runner-up prizes compared to the biggest names. The Josh Donaldsons, essentially. There are options, and the Cardinals should be among the biggest players in the market this year.

Harper in particular would seem to offer a serious upgrade to the Cardinal offense; Machado is probably the better overall fit, but between a whole lot of smoke regarding his return to the East Coast, a seeming desire to play shortstop, where he is quite bad (much worse than Paul DeJong, specifically), and just a general feeling I get, I don’t think he’s as realistic a target. Harper, though, would bring an immediate left-handed bat of the sort the Cardinals have been sorely missing in the middle of the lineup, with both big power and ridiculous on-base skills in the offing.

However, there’s an issue here, and it’s one that we really need to talk about at some point. The Cardinals have a center fielder; his name is Harrison Bader, and he looks like a potential Kiermaierish ~4 win player. That’s an aggressive number, but I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable. The Cards also have a left fielder, whom they just traded for last offseason. Now, personally, I don’t much care to see Marcell Ozuna in a Redbird uniform again in 2019, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that’s what we’ll be watching. So that leaves right field as a potential home for Harper, or pretty much any other big offensive upgrade the Cards might want to make in the outfield.

And therein lies the problem. See, the Cardinals have a right fielder, too. Now, they don’t have a right fielder in the same way they have a center and left fielder, which is to say they have a right fielder in the sense there’s a player they want to see playing out there every day. No, the Cardinals have a right fielder in the sense of, “Well, we signed this guy to a big contract, and even understanding sunk cost it’s really hard to not play a guy you’re paying a bunch of money.”

There’s also the fact that the Cardinals have a young player ready to take over in right field, ready to almost certainly be as good or better than the incumbent, for a much cheaper price, with a much higher upside. Even if the Cards are not in the Harper sweepstakes, they have a very good reason to try and move said incumbent. Hell, even playing Jose Martinez in right field for all of 2019 is probably an upgrade, although that’s still a pretty clearly suboptimal strategy.

The Cardinals have a Dexter Fowler problem. And it’s a problem without an obvious solution.

Here’s the thing: the Cardinals have every reason to try and move on from Fowler, and very few actual opportunities to do so. Between internal options and the chance for external upgrades, it would behoove the Cards to figure out some way of getting Fowler off the books. Problem is, his contract appears at this point to be not just underwater, but potentially disastrous.

There are, so far as I can see, three ways of possibly dealing with the Fowler problem, aside from the very worrisome option of just keeping him. (And this is all, I should point out, assuming Fowler will waive his NTC to get out of a situation where he’s likely to get squeezed out of playing time and probably isn’t all that happy anyway.)

Option one: simply release him. Sunk cost. Eat the money, don’t let the player continue to drag down the team with negative value.

Option two: package a prospect with Fowler in order to trade him to another team while getting them to take on his contract.

Option three: find another bad contract to swap for Fowler’s, most likely a situation where the other club is lessening their own risk in some way in exchange for possible upside on the Cards’ end.

Now, option one is tough. Well, actually, it’s not tough; in fact, it’s by far the simplest and easiest option listed here. But it’s tough to convince a human being to actually do, even when said human being is the owner of a baseball team who understands how to build a winning organisation even when the choices are sometimes difficult. It’s very hard for me to see the Cards just releasing Fowler, if only for the specter of seeing him go elsewhere and bounce back to respectability while being paid almost entirely by a club he’s no longer playing for. Embarrassment is a powerful negative influencer.

Option two is a very interesting one. Ordinarily, I’m of the school who would argue you should never, ever spend talent when money will suffice instead, given that one resource is far more limited in quantity than the other. However, in this particular case, I wonder. If you’re in a situation where you’re looking to make a big upgrade or two, and essentially all of the upgrade costs will be expressed in dollars — as in, signing Bryce Harper and, say, Andrew Miller or someone — then would a talent cost to open up the road to those financial investments be off the table? If you have a hard limit on how far you’re willing to push spending — and we can argue about how hard a cap there should be, but I think we all understand there 100% is a limit — then is using talent to reduce the cash on the books really any different from making a trade to bring in talent? In other words, we would never balk at trading prospects for a significant upgrade to the current roster, right? If so, then why would we balk at dealing prospects to free up the roster spot and money to sign a significant upgrade to the roster? For the record, I’m not sure I buy this line of thinking, but I’m also not sure I don’t buy it, if that makes sense.

Which brings us to option three, and the point that I’ve spent so long leading up to. Probably the option that makes the most sense is to look around, find another team with a contract it would like to get off the books, and figure out some way of swapping Fowler’s contract for the other club’s bad deal. Ideally, the player being brought in by the Cardinals would potentially fill a need of some sort — if, that is, the player were to rebound. Most likely, the Cards would have to take on a riskier bet to try and get a better player, while allowing the other club, probably a team either entering or on the verge of a rebuild, to move a contract off their books sooner. The Cards are still looking to compete year in, year out. What they need is a modest upgrade to the roster on a potentially worse contract than Fowler’s with greater upside.

Looking around baseball, there aren’t really that many situation that present themselves as obvious solutions. There is, however, one very specific situation that would seem to fit almost perfectly, and it comes in the form of a team the Cardinals have done business with quite a lot over the past couple years.

I’m talking, of course, about the Seattle Mariners. (I say ‘of course’ because you read the title of this article, I would assume, meaning you’ve just been waiting for me to get there all this time.) Specifically, I’m talking about the Seattle Mariners, who may very well be headed for another rebuild, and their third baseman, Kyle Seager.

A little background, first.

Funny thing about the Mariners: going by win-loss record, Seattle doesn’t look to be anywhere close to needing to rebuild. In fact, they finished the 2018 season with an 89-73 record, exactly one game better than the Cardinals, who we’re trying to make better, rather than tear down. However, that surface record hides some much scarier numbers underneath, as Seattle had an historically anomalous record in close games this year, allowing them to amass that 89 win total while also being outscored by 34 runs. That’s right; the Mariners’ Pythagorean record this past season was 77-85, a full twelve games worse than their actual record. We know run differential is a better estimator of team talent than win-loss record, and Jerry Dipoto knows it, too. The M’s also have a generally weak farm system (though they are beginning to collect some solid positional talent for a window a couple years off, potentially), and are going to be paying Robinson Cano to play into his forties. Felix Hernandez appears to be done, James Paxton is going to require a huge financial outlay, and the Mariners are closer to a 75 win club than they are 95 wins in all likelihood, even if they bring back all the talent they have now. Things in Seattle could be trending in a very dark direction, and it might behoove Dipoto and Co. to try and get ahead of things.

As for Kyle Seager, up until last season he was among the most quietly consistent producers in all of baseball. He put up fWAR totals between 3.6 and 5.2 every season from 2012, when he became an everyday player, through 2017. His best offensive season came in 2016, when he posted a career-high 134 wRC+ on the strength of the highest walk rate (10.2%), and isolated slugging (.221), of his major league tenure. His bat fell off a bit in 2017, largely due to a 30 point decrease in BABIP and a little lower ISO, but he still posted an excellent season by dint of playing plus defense at a tough position and hitting for a still-above-average wRC+ of 108.

In 2018, though, things didn’t go so well for Seager. He saw his ISO decline again, from .201 to .178, and his BABIP tumble down even further to .251. His walk rate fell from 8.9% in 2017 to just 6.0%. In other words, Kyle Seager got markedly worse across the board from 2017 to 2018. The defensive metrics can’t seem to agree on Seager, but all have him getting somewhat worse in 2018.

As for the contract, Seager is signed for three more years as part of a seven-year deal he signed back in the 2014-’15 offseason. He’s owed $19 million in both 2019 and 2020, and $18 million in ‘21. He’ll play those seasons at 31, 32, and 33, which is by no means too old to be good, but is old enough to start worrying a down season may be a cliff rather than a blip.

There’s actually a poison pill built in to Seager’s contract, as well; there is a $15 million club option for 2022 tacked on to the end of his deal. The catch? It becomes a player option if he is traded, meaning you’re likely trading for a player on a four year, $71 million contract at age 31. That’s by no means a terrible deal, but for the 1.6 wins Seager put up in 2018 you’d prefer not to be paying close to 20 million.

So how would Seager benefit the Cardinals? Well, he would immediately give the club another left-handed bat in the lineup, and one with some pop to boot. If — and obviously, this is a big if — the Cards were to actually land Harper and add Seager, they would join Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong to form a very formidable lefty half of a lineup, representing far better balance than the Cards have had in several right-tilted years.

Additionally, Seager would bring solid defense at the hot corner, and do so for a period which should match up reasonably well with the Cardinals’ medium-term schedule for third base. Nolan Gorman made it to Low A this season, and while he struggled there against much older competition, I expect to see him back there to open 2019. Malcom Nunez is even a little further off, but offers a similar level of upside physically. Finding a three year solution at third would seem like a solid length of investment.

Now, perhaps the better question is: why would the Mariners make this move? To which the answer is: well, they probably wouldn’t. Or not without some encouragement, anyway. Maybe that comes in the form of the Cards picking up some of Fowler’s salary, or adding a prospect on their side of the ledger to try and balance things out. The point is, it almost certainly wouldn’t just be a straight Fowler for Seager swap, unless there’s reason to believe Seager is permanently reduced as a player going forward.

But as to why Seattle would consider moving Seager in the first place after just one rough season, the answer is entirely about their window of competition. The Mariners play in the AL West, a shark tank of a division (or perhaps a Trout tank, if you get my drift), with a phenomenal Astros club that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, a very good Oakland squad that arrive this past year, and an Angel club that just can’t seem to get things right despite having the best player in baseball, and already one of the best in history, under contract. The Mariners, with that ugly underlying predicted win-loss record, could be in serious trouble going forward. And if they feel a rebuild or even a smaller retool is necessary, it’s possible the three-year window on Kyle Seager doesn’t make a ton of sense for them. If you expect 2019 and 2020 to both be lost seasons, or very nearly so, then holding on to your three-year contract with your third baseman doesn’t really do what you need it to do.

Admittedly, Dexter Fowler doesn’t necessarily improve the 2019 club, much less anything much beyond that, but he represents a way to wiggle out from under a potentially much more damaging contract for Seattle if they’re willing to make the move. And if the Cardinals were to pay a chunk of the freight for Fowler, then suddenly he becomes a very useful commodity for a rebuilding team.

As I said, you likely wouldn’t be talking about a one-for-one swap of these players; the Cardinals would have to push, and be willing to add on their side, in order to balance things out the way the Seattle front office would want. And certainly, the Mariners could believe themselves to be potentially competitive in 2019, or at least some point in the near future, too close for a trade of Kyle Seager to make up much real value. But if Seattle is staring down a near-term future with a rebuild or retool in the cards, then finding a way to clear the decks — and the books — over the next couple seasons could end up being very important.

The Cardinals, in this scenario, would be getting the greater upside, most definitely, but would also be taking on a fairly large dose of extra risk by going for the more expensive contract, probably for four seasons instead of three. Hanging on to Fowler, or moving him in some other fashion, would actually represent a safer play for the Cards. And yet, there’s really no other move out there I can see which has even a small chance of happening that could immediately flip a weakness into a strength, just by being willing to take a risk.

This is going to be an offseason in which the Cards need to take some risks, by necessity and opportunity both. This is the sort of risk they may have to take, not only to improve but to prime the pump for other, bigger risks. There are plenty of reasons for a risk like this not to be taken. But there are also plenty of reasons why this might be exactly the kind of risk that has to be taken.