Free Agency has been quiet to this point, and outside of a few big (and risky) names the market doesn't look all that promising. But the Seattle Mariners still need to make some roster improvements to get away from being an afterthought in the AL West and AL Wild Card races. With Baseball's Winter Meetings kicking off on Monday (December 3rd) at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik has a chance to flip some of the promising talent he has helped bring into the organization into 2013 upgrades.
But who can fetch the team a top prospect? Who is viewed as a throw-in? Without further delay, SeattleClubhouse gives you the 10 most valuable Mariners in terms of trade worth.
1. Felix Hernandez: RHP, 26-years-old, 2 yrs/$39.5m
Hernandez is clearly one of the best pitchers in the game, he is only 26, has already won a Cy Young, leads all of MLB in innings pitched over the past four seasons (954), ranks second in ERA (2.81), is a first-rate teammate, clear team leader and all around "good soldier" and he is signed through the end of the 2014 season for the reasonable price of only $39.5m. Some say that he benefits from pitching in spacious Safeco Field, but his career ERA at home is only 0.11 less than on the road (3.16 to 3.27). King Felix also owns the eighth best FIP (3.03) and fifth best xFIP among qualified starters since 2009.
What is his value?: The M's could easily command a prospect package of three to five top-tier prospects or young MLBers from a trade partner, like the package that the Padres got from dealing Mat Latos last year as a starting point. But who is close enough to contention, is loaded with young talent and can afford to give up that much? The list of potential suitors isn't long.
Why would the M's?: His value is sky-high and the roster still has some glaring shortcomings -- namely offense. With the dimensions changing at Safeco Field and a lot of young, rising talent, now might be a good time for a franchise face-lift while thoughts of strong, expected contention are still a year or two away. But regardless of the club's immediate outlook, Felix's value as the current franchise icon is likely too great to surrender, regardless of what the return could look like.
2. Taijuan Walker: RHP, 20-years-old, 6+ yrs club control
Walker is one of the most highly regarded young arms in the game today, with the stuff and the makeup to become a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues at a very young age. He's averaged 9.4 SO/9 in 230 1/3 career minor league innings and as a former standout basketball player is a great athlete with tremendous drive on the mound.
What is his value?: Walker is worth about as much as any single minor league prospect in the game. His mid-90s fastball, overhand curve, improving changeup and plus athleticism all scream "future elite starter". The top hitting prospects in baseball are probably Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar, Nick Castellanos and Oscar Tavares. Walker's value is at least just as high as each of those players. But despite last season's Montero - Pineda trade, prospect-for-prospect deals are rare.
Why would the M's?: With a profusion of pitching talent surrounding Walker in the organization, giving up one talented arm to fill what is a palpable need and adding a top-tier, cost-controlled, long-term hitter may be a price worth paying for Seattle.
3. Tom Wilhelmsen: RHP, 28-years-old, 5 yrs club control
Wilhelmsen took over the closer duties for the Mariners last June and went on to save 29 games with a high-90s fastball and a knee-buckling curve. He'll be 29 before opening day and was drafted in 2002, but having taken more than five years off of the game due to drug suspensions and "finding himself", his arm has a lot of miles left on it.
What is his value?: A young building block piece himself, Wilhelmsen likely couldn't land the M's a proven, young middle of the order bat by himself, but he could return a solid complimentary big league piece or two solid prospects if the club wanted to set their sights a little further down the road.
Why would the M's?: Closers have no middle ground in their value: they are either on top of the world and showing that they know how to shut down games, developing that coveted "closing experience", or they are on the brink of losing their job. Wilhelmsen was phenomenal for Seattle in 2012, but if he falters he may never get his value back to where it is now. And the M's also have a few other young closer-type relievers already in their MLB bullpen.
4. Kyle Seager: 3B/2B, 25-years-old, 5 yrs club control
Seager, who played solidly defensively at third base in 2012, led the Mariners in a number of offensive categories including HR (20) and RBI (86) while posting a solid .259/.316/.423 mark in his first full season. But he actually hit .293/.324/.511 and slugged 15 of his homers on the road where he posted the 25th best isolated power number (.219) in all of baseball while out OPS-ing (.835) some standard 3B slugger names such as Aramis Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Zimmerman in the process.
What is his value?: His ability to play defensively at second base (his natural position) or third while bringing a plus left-handed bat to the table would definitely interest a lot of teams. But if the Mariners are looking to upgrade the offense by dealing Seager, any offensive upgrade it would almost definitely mean a defensive downgrade, probably by moving down the position spectrum.
Why would the M's?: Seager isn't a natural third baseman and the club is invested in Dustin Ackley at second base. They are also a little left-hand heavy in their lineup. If dealing Seager could net the club more right-handed power in the form of a more established big leaguer they may consider trading him.
5. Danny Hultzen: LHP, 23-years-old, 3 yrs/$1.7m per as part of MLB draft deal, 6+ yrs club control
What is his value?: Despite the command troubles that derailed his first pro season in Triple-A, Hultzen remains one of the top pitching prospects in the game, getting the nod in the MiLB Player Poll in being voted as the best left-handed prospect in the minors at the end of the year. As a near MLB-ready left-handed former No. 3 pick, many clubs would love to get their hands on Hultzen, but he is unproven. Would teams part with proven talent for him?
Why would the M's?: It isn't that the club isn't high on Hultzen. As is the case with Walker, pitching depth is the M's strength, so if dealing one of their top pitching prospects can fill in their MLB gaps, I'm sure that Jack Z wouldn't hesitate. But, again, it would need to be a cost-controlled, young, proven guy.
6. Nick Franklin: SS/2B, 21-years-old, 6+ yrs club control
What is his value?: Franklin followed up a solid, full regular season at two levels and hit very well in the AFL for the 2nd straight season in front of personnel from every MLB club. He earned solid marks on his defense at 2nd base and the right-handed side of the bat seems to be picking up a bit, too. Offensively gifted middle infielders don't grow on trees and a team that is lacking offense or prospects along their infield could see big things for Franklin and spend with a position they deem easier to fill.
Why would the M's?: If Franklin truly can't handle shortstop, as many have suggested, he just becomes another one of the group of players that the Mariners have all fighting for the same second base position. Franklin's value is higher now as a Triple-A kid that had his ups-and-downs than it would be if he comes up and plays sparingly for the M's in a pseudo-utility role.
7. Michael Saunders: OF, 26-years-old, 4 yrs club control/~$500k in '13 then 3 ARB seasons
What is his value?: Saunders worked extremely hard and made some big adjustments prior to last season and they paid off in easily his best big league season. He showed he can handle center field and hit left-handed pitching while flirting with a 20-20 season. He's still cheap and young and his 2012 could just be the beginning of his breakout.
Why would the M's?: Seattle has a bunch of corner outfielders already in the system and still has the tantalizing talent of DTFT for center IF he can stay healthy. Should a club offer a true power hitter in exchange for the Condor Seattle may bite.
8. Dustin Ackley: 2B, 24-years-old, 5 yrs club control, $1.5m in '13 as part of MLB draft deal
What is his value?: He had an undeniably disappointing season in 2012, but the former Tar Heel was dealing with a bone spur issue all season and his lower half never seemed to be right during the year. Now somewhat proven as solid defensively at second base, the former No. 2 pick could be a "change of scenery" candidate to explode.
Why would the M's?: Like with Franklin on the infield and Walker and Hultzen on the mound, moving Ackley would be dealing from a position of organizational depth and strength. If the M's could net, say, a slugging 3B or LF, enabling them to shuffle other pieces around, I feel that moving Ackley would be considered.
9. Jesus Montero: DH, 23-years-old, 5 yrs club control
What is his value?: He didn't hit 20 home runs or bat .300-plus, but Montero did make progress as a hitter in 2012. He is already among the most powerful hitters on the Mariners. He also showed the Mariners and the rest of the league that he isn't likely to be long for the catcher position, however. Lacking ideal athleticism for first base, he may indeed be a DH long-term, which suppresses his value. But a team could still bank on the Mike Piazza/Frank Thomas-type bat to emerge and look to acquire the 23-year-old.
Why would the M's?: With it looking like Montero will be relegated to designated hitter, it limits the M's flexibility in roster construction a bit. If they could add an offensive corner outfielder for Montero I feel that they would make the move.
10. James Paxton: SP, 24-years-old, 6+ yrs club control
What is his value?: Paxton has shown front of the rotation stuff in his two seasons in the minors with the Mariners, but some say he has reliever-level control. He's 24 and hasn't reached Triple-A yet, and although he is a good bet to see extended big league time in 2013, he hasn't been tested against or exposed to MLB-caliber hitters that much so far. Some teams may bank on the promise but they'd surely try and play up his potential limitations in trade negotiations.
Why would the M's?: For whatever reason, Paxton seems to be the one of the "Big Three" that fans don't seem all that attached to. He's had a few injuries already and the year off, courtesy of the bullying NCAA, make him somewhat of an "old" prospect. They have pitching - they need hitting. If Paxton can land the club some hitting, they will deal him
Those are the 10 most valuable trade pieces that the Mariners in terms of a general market in my estimation. The Mariners do have more names that could be dealt in the right situation, however. Franklin Gutierrez, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez and Brendan Ryan all have skillsets that could make them attractive to teams that feel they are missing that one key ingredient.
It is a somewhat unique situation for Seattle as the makeup of the club right now (i.e., young) makes it such that their top trade pieces are the very pieces that they need to be successful, build the "culture of winning" and build to win long-term. But you have to give to get, and if Jack Zduriencik and Seattle hope to make a big splash via the trade market at the Winter Meetings, it will be with one (or more) of these Top-10 pieces.
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